A burning question facing opera planners is what to partner Bartók’s tense, psychological drama Bluebeard’s Castle. Choosing from what’s available is a difficult match, but Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös’ opera Senza sangue, composed in 2015, is the perfect companion piece. Written for the same forces as Bluebeard (minus the organ), also in seven scenes, the two operas are designed to dovetail into a continuous chilling performance, a cause of considerable excitement at Müpa's Budapest concert hall, the Hungarian première of this double bill with a TV crew recording this important event. With the main Opera House closed for renovation, the orchestra pit was opened up allowing a fully staged performance in a tremendous acoustic, with one of the biggest organs in Europe standing by for the Bartók.

Viktória Vizin and Jordan Shanahan in <i>Senza sangue</i> © Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest
Viktória Vizin and Jordan Shanahan in Senza sangue
© Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest

In Alessandro Baricco’s novella Without Blood, a whole family is murdered by soldiers in the Spanish Civil War. A 12-year old girl is discovered hiding beneath a hatch in the floor by the youngest soldier, who points his gun, but spares her, telling the others there is no one there. Over the following years, the soldiers die in mysterious circumstances, and as the opera starts, the Woman meets the Man, the last surviving soldier, the one who spared her. The Man has feared this meeting for many years, and as the characters lock eyes, they both recognise the other. Both tell stories of the intervening years, the Woman, Nina, adopted, lost in a gamble to a Count and married at 14. The Man knows about all the other soldiers and as Nina opens her handbag and pulls a gun on him, he expects to meet a similar fate.

<i>Senza sangue</i> at Müpa © Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest
Senza sangue at Müpa
© Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest

Éva Szendrényi’s simple and effective black set with two ramps and seven tall white gauze strips criss-crossing the stage was a wonderful canvas for Lóránt Demeter’s haunting black and white video graphics of Spanish newspapers, lottery tickets, a cowering child and guns, but most of all, the huge knowing eyes staring out, challenging us to read their secrets.   Anikó Németh’s costumes for both operas were a quirky mix of traditional and modern, their timelessness almost designed to unsettle. Conjuring an instant dramatic atmosphere, mezzo-soprano Viktória Vizin, in an elegant floor length white gauze dress, white floppy hat and handbag, owned the stage from start to finish, her rich vocal colours and range perfect for this challenging role, especially in her soliloquy. Baritone Jordan Shanahan, dressed in grey with matching flowing hair, was a strong tender voice, a foil to Vizin’s challenges. The drama onstage was intensified in the pit, as Péter Eötvös’ score swirled ominously, rumbling with deep brass, pointed up with high violins, yet lyrical and flowing for all its dark subject matter. In the end, Nina lowers her gun, and invites the Man to accompany her to a hotel room, the music leaving us to imagine what happens after the door closes.

Andrea Szántó (Judith) and Krisztián Cser (Bluebeard) © Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest
Andrea Szántó (Judith) and Krisztián Cser (Bluebeard)
© Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest

Judith and Bluebeard appear through the same door after the spoken Prologue, raising possibilities of links between the two works, both driven by strong women, and both laden with secrets. An impressively strongly voiced cast with Bluebeard experience, mezzo Andrea Szántó and baritone Krisztián Cser slowly sidled down the ramps to stage level, László Zsolt Bordos’ projections growing door by door on each strip of gauze. Like the first Woman, Szántó was also in a long white dress, but with an Elizabethan raised collar framing her imposing high-stepped futuristic hairpiece.

In a captivating dramatic and physical performance, Szántó's sensuously charged voice in its lower register opened up astonishingly to high drama when secrets were revealed as the last door opened and there was no escape. Director Csaba Káel left her marooned in a pool of red light at the front of the stage, looking down on the (unseen) three other women, forever nighttime. Cser, in a bronze breastplate and pantaloons, gave a magnificent performance, his large dark baritone carrying across the sizable orchestra from his gloomy castle, every syllable crystal clear. As the pair travel down the walkways, Bluebeard teases Judith, notching up the tension dangerously, wonderful to hear in Hungarian. The performance became more violent, intimate and highly charged, the pair kissing passionately and literally rolling on top of each other onto the floor in the Secret Garden like seasoned lovers.

<i>Bluebeard's Castle</i> at Müpa © Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest
Bluebeard's Castle at Müpa
© Zsófia Pályi | Müpa Budapest

In the pit under Péter Eötvös, the Hungarian National Philharmonic was a huge seething force in both operas, excitingly restless, full of dark colours and psychological menace, the great C major blast for Bluebeard's fifth door with full pipe organ majestic. The slight pause and the spoken Prologue did not quite dovetail the two works, but I hope that Senza sangue will be a first choice for many opera companies scheduling Bluebeard. I can’t wait to see it again.

 

 

*****