Twenty-eight immobile cast members faced the audience from the long white bench which comprised the totality of Katrin Lea Tag’s bare set. Meanwhile, a floor-level, period instrument orchestra delivered the attention-grabbing, minor key Overture to Purcell's 1688 Dido and Aeneas. Directed by Constantinos Carydis’ fluid, baton-free hands, their vitality, articulation and attention to dynamics heralded the energetic production about to unfold. While widowed Carthaginian Queen Dido (Paula Murrihy) speculated on possible amorous entanglement with Trojan refugee Aeneas (Sebastien Geyer), two representatives of Cupid joined the throng, the female clad in little more than the mother of all fascinators, her male counterpart sporting a hat to rival the most expansive at Ascot’s Ladies Day.

Oper Frankfurt, Dido and Aeneas © Monika Rittershaus
Oper Frankfurt, Dido and Aeneas
© Monika Rittershaus

Bearded, cross-dressing countertenors furnished sorcerous plotting which was unmistakably comic – surely the only way to deal with witchcraft in 2013. In the most camp of such moments, their leader, the impressive Martin Wölfel, had something of the late Kenny Everett in his hair tossing and leg crossing. Remarkably, the production’s comic element didn’t weaken its moments of pathos. When Dido’s hour came, not only was the now-legendary lament very movingly delivered, but the moment of her death was quite upsetting. Even although we know a blade to have been involved (from Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid), in many productions Dido simply, if somewhat unbelievably, lies down and dies of grief. Here, the only evidence of harm at her own hand – Dido’s sustained cries of pain – mingled with Purcell’s beautiful chorus “With dropping wings ye Cupids come”. Belinda (Kateryna Kasper), was not, as is usual, by Dido’s side; soon nobody was. The chorus having slipped away during an instrumental continuation of this final number, the orchestra followed and, rather than concluding, the music gradually evaporated, leaving unhappy Dido abandoned.

While stopping short of proving Steve Allen’s assertion that “comedy is tragedy plus time” this highly imaginative production inventively and effectively combined both. Lighthearted musical liberties were also prominent. The two recorder players stood, big band style, when featured; subsiding glissandi accompanied the words, “and silence their mourning with vows of returning”, the advice given to Aeneas’ sailors leaving loved ones.

I was as impressed by the lead characters’ acting as their singing. Geyer appeared genuinely conflicted when faced with either defying Jove’s command to set sail or breaking Dido’s heart. Murrihy’s fury, when Aeneas chose the latter, was fierce.

The programme featured a short, anaphoric verse by director Barrie Kosky promising two operas about arrival, departure, a man, a woman, and Eden lost, forgotten and remembered. I felt Purcell’s penultimate chorus pointing us towards Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle. The words, “Great minds against themselves conspire” seemed to resonate with a concern of the original tale’s creator, Charles Perrault – that curiosity often results in regret.

Béla Balázs’ 1908 libretto differs from Perrault’s 1697 original in one significant detail: instead of unlocking the seven doors of Bluebeard’s dark abode in his absence, Judith seeks to bring light into their newlywed life by convincing him to open the doors. In a two-hander such as Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle this seems to make more dramatic sense. Vocally, it is a two-hander, but six more cast members appeared here: three mute former wives and three allegorically represented rooms, each dressed to match Bluebeard’s wedding suit.

The idea of men in matching suits representing horror-filled rooms may seem unlikely. However, the design here was excellent. From each suit emerged, in turn, treasure, foliage, and lakes of tears. The last of these was dramatically and technically stunning, some cast members now dripping wet and blood-stained. Bluebeard suffered these same transformations as his home, surely representing his being, underwent continued revelation.

Spare staging characterised this production too, Bluebeard’s circular Gothic hall was represented by a huge white disc, upon which all the action unfolded. This tilted, revolving disc allowed the staging to mirror the light and dark of the story and its music. When the black rimmed disc turned so that its high side was foremost, all white was eclipsed – certainly in the stalls. Bartók employed tonality’s polar opposites of C major and F sharp major as stark, auditory chiaroscuro. Reinforced wind sections of the large orchestra allowed darkness to emerge, when summoned, from the pit.

Tanja Ariane Baumgartmer, as Judith, and Robert Hayward, as Bluebeard, were both extremely impressive, the latter’s voice seeming to me the finest and most authoritative of the evening. Sheer stamina alone would have impressed but the emotional charge of the psychological excavation was gripping. Over this hour-long, one-act opera, they certainly convinced me not only that probing deeply into the mind can reveal darkness but also that darkness itself can be strangely compelling. And the audience’s response to both of these two fine productions was huge.