David Radok’s staging of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, at the Janáček Brno Festival, leaves you in no doubt about the director’s view of the piece: these are not characters from some remote fairytale fantasy. Rather, Bluebeard and Judith are Everyman and Everywoman; the castle is Bluebeard’s consciousness and in seeking to explore each of the seven locked doors, Judith is playing out a drama that happens in every marriage: how much do you really know about your spouse, and how much is it prudent to reveal?

Anders Lorentzson (Bluebeard), Katarina Giotas (Judith) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Anders Lorentzson (Bluebeard), Katarina Giotas (Judith)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek

Radok is virtuosic in putting this view across, with the help of Martin Chocholoušek’s abstract set, which works superbly. Panels shift in all three dimensions to compress or expand the space in which the two protagonists move; while Bluebeard is broadly static, Judith is constantly in motion, exploring the boundaries of the space available to her. Simple lighting effects shift the mood – red for blood, yellow for the glitter of treasure, and so on. Zuzana Ježkova’s costumes are also simple but highly effective: a standard formal wedding suit for him, a white confection of a wedding dress for her with blood red roses.

Although the production team is all-Czech, Radok emigrated to Sweden after the Soviet invasion of 1968 and has done much of his directing there: this production was first seen in March in Gothenburg, and features Swedish singers. Anders Lorentzon was a superb Bluebeard, with a bass-baritone voice rock solid at the bottom, just enough waver to present the man’s inner torment, the ability to sing out for the moments when he announces the greatness of his kingdom. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is an opera in which it’s hard to compete with the lush orchestration, and Lorentzon never faltered; he also summoned up immense lyricism for the closing passages. Katarina Giotas did get submerged from time to time, but otherwise negotiated the difficult vocal lines well, with attractive warmth in the voice. The singer of Judith is required to change personality through the course of the piece as newlywed innocence yields to implacable, compulsive thirst for knowledge: Giotas accomplished this with aplomb.

The end is ambivalent: has Judith destroyed herself and her husband by asking too much? Or has she simply forced Bluebeard to confront the inevitable truth about himself? We are left to make our own uncomfortable decision.

Under the baton of Marko Ivanović, the Janáček Opera NTB Orchestra were never less than thrilling. Bartók's music combined sweetness and threat early on, the opening of the fifth door into Bluebeard’s kingdom was satisfyingly expansive, the harp notes that introduce the Lake of Tears rang evocatively, and the tension ratcheted up to an orchestral scream worthy of Edvard Munch. An impressive contribution to a genuinely illuminating performance.

Katarina Karnéus (The Woman) © Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Katarina Karnéus (The Woman)
© Janáčkova opera NdB / Marek Olbrzymek
Arnold Schoenberg’s dramatic monologue Erwartung (Expectation) depicts an unnamed woman who awaits her lover in a wood and then finds his dead body. It’s Expressionism with a capital E – an intravenous injection of the hellish series of mental agonies that the woman undergoes. Radok links the two operas: the room in which we have seen Bluebeard’s past wives is shifted forwards to become the set of Erwartung, and the woman is one of those wives. Clearly, she is Everywoman just as Judith was.

It’s a neat enough concept (and not dissimilar to Krzysztof Warlikowski’s pairing of Bluebeard with La voix humaine in Paris last year), but it didn’t work for me. The problem is that Erwartung’s text is shot through with metaphors which conjoin the forest setting and the woman’s state of mind. The role is difficult enough as it is, requiring a virtuosic piece of acting; if the woman has only a moderately normal bedsit in which to work, that difficulty seems to me to increase to impossible levels. Katarina Karnéus produced a bravura piece of vocal acting, but nothing in the setting gave her any help. Radok has created a non-speaking role of The Man, acted by Anders Lorentzson: I found this merely confusing and distracting. And in truth, while Erwartung's music stands up well enough on its own, setting it against the brilliance and craft of Bartók's orchestration in Bluebeard doesn't do it any favours.

An evening of two halves, in the end – I would want to see this production of Duke Bluebeard's Castle again and again, but in spite of Karnéus' quality, it will take a different setting of Erwartung to convince me of its merits.