Béla Bartók’s 60 minute Bluebeard’s Castle is a challenge to find a partner for. State Opera of South Australia’s David Lampard, the director, has focused on the idea of ‘secrets’. Hence he chose Wolf-Ferrari’s Il segreto di Susanna to complement the former. He writes: “in both works we explore secrets – and their subsequent revelations and consequences”. It is a successful match. Although the contrast of the two is as different as chalk and cheese, their consequences remarkably dissimilar, the story of both is to be found in unravelling and exposing of e secrets.

Joshua Rowe (Count Gil) and Naomi Hede (Countess Susanna) © Darren Williams Photography
Joshua Rowe (Count Gil) and Naomi Hede (Countess Susanna)
© Darren Williams Photography

Certainly Bluebeard’s secret is dark and dreadful, the product of a disturbed mind, while Susanna’s secret, certainly addictive, is one that many people can relate to, even if socially unacceptable in this present age. Artistic director Timothy Sexton sees these two operas as perfect foils for each other. He says “Il segreto is like the flipside of Bluebeard. It takes us back to a former time and offers a window to the self. The music is fantastic and the story an amusing sitcom predicated on keeping secrets.”

The performances are in State Opera’s Opera Studio – as the name suggests, a smaller venue better suited to shorter, more intimate productions. Susanna was staged creatively in a flash art deco style room put together from modular stage pieces, “an escapist Hollywood version of the 1930’s” explains designer David Lampard, and accompanied with lively skill by musical director David Barnard on a piano. The resonant baritone of Joshua Rowe as Count Gil was evenly matched by the clarity of soprano Naomi Hede’s Countess Susanna. Both sang delightfully with consistently true voices.

But their singing did not always complement, at times giving the impression they were each doing their own separate thing. However, there were other times when they gelled beautifully together, most appropriately highlighted in their duet of forgiving each other and swearing that their love would “burn without end”.

Most moving for me was Susanna’s aria to smoking and the cigarette: “O gioia la nube leggera”, as she sang, reclining like Cleopatra on a cushioned divan, one line of which the surtitle translated as “gossamer mist rising in azure rings”, almost seductive enough to make one want to take up the toxic habit.

What really added pizzazz to the performance were the quality slapstick moments of Hede and Rowe, both continually outdone though by seen-but-not-heard Rod Schltz as the silent, but not to be overlooked, Sante, their servant. He was comically eloquent without ever opening his mouth.

Jeremy Tatchell (Bluebeard) and Deborah Johnson (Judith) © Darren Williams Photography
Jeremy Tatchell (Bluebeard) and Deborah Johnson (Judith)
© Darren Williams Photography

Bluebeard’s Castle took us to a deeper intensity. Here Jeremy Tatchell’s rich baritone and Deborah Johnson’s powerful, penetratingly haunting soprano were evenly matched. Both gave commanding performances. They sang in German, a language able to convey the drama of the mood of the opera far more effectively than English. The clever sensitivity of David Barnard’s playing, this time of piano and keyboard, matched with the brilliant mood creating percussion of Andrew Wiering, along with some very expressive lighting effects from Daniel Barber, created and sustained the eerie atmosphere which the character of Bluebeard (Tatchell) and his new wife Judith (Johnson) inhabited. There were times when the music seemed as if adding an extra voice. There were times, too, when Johnson (as Judith) was able to control Bluebeard, even as she exposed his loneliness, as a man, trapped and despairing, a victim of all that he had become. There were also times of majesty when Tatchell’s Bluebeard sang with a power that suggested, like an iceberg in the ocean, there was an depth unfathomable residing below the surface. It was a privilege to hear these two singers combining with such force and intensity. There was a depth to their singing that one rarely encounters. It made for a disturbingly satisfying musical experience.

I enjoyed the fun and frothiness of Il segreto di Susanna. But I was bowled over by, and truly appreciated, the performance of Bluebeard’s Castle.