Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and Gianni Schicchi (Coliseum); The Lambton Worm (Oxford Playhouse)
New Statesman, Feb. 1978
Bluebeard's new bride tiresomely insists on looking into his locked rooms. There she finds flowers and jewels stained with blood and tears, signifying the gains and pains of love. She can live with such disclosures, but not with the contents of the fatal seventh room namely three former wives who are still disconcertingly alive, though understandably speechless. The latest arrival is now doomed to join her predecessors in silence and obscurity; as bride and door shut up, night and curtain fall. Moral: ask no questions and you'll be told no truths. In Bartok's dream world, any leftover lovers would be better dismembered than remembered. In Puccini's real world, which is just as cruel, the late unlamented Buoso Donati has willed his money to a monastery. His repulsive relatives flap and shriek like thwarted vultures before turning in desperation to the local con-man, tricky Schicchi whose timely impersonation not only deceives the law but defrauds the church; Moral: where there's a will there's a wastrel. Just leave everything to him and he'll leave everything to himself.
The comedy of death and profit when added to the tragedy of love and loss makes a finely-balanced double bill. But some items remain rather unsettled. Of course Bluebeard's donjon must look dark and lie deep, as befits a symbol of the unconscious mind. But it could surely have afforded better access than by a builder's ladder, which lets down the castle as well as the cast. Not only the stipulated staircase but the keys, doors and contents of the rooms should arguably be directly represented, not just mimed or mirrored; for how can symbolism work without any actual symbols? At least one of the two characters looked convincingly real. Elizabeth Connell, warm and womanly in voice and presence, made much of her lines, both as melody and (in Chester Kallman's sensitive translation) as poetry, Gwynne Howell as the ominous spouse sounded impressive yet looked impassive. He could have made a perfect Duke Greybeard; but Bartok's hero is surely virility personified, and this is his wedding night. He should stand more proudly, act more vigorously. The best visual and dramatic effects came from the direction of Charles Groves, as when the fifth door opened on a long shining vista of sustained chords depicting broad sunlit domains.
Puccini's score is fully as graphic in its more worldly way; and the inspired craftsmanship of his musical scenes and designs was well matched by the stage setting, which drew a round of spontaneous applause. So did Joy Roberts, in Lauretta’s famous aria of daughterly devotion; so well-loved a daddy could easily become top of the pops. Mark Elder's conducting seemed a shade too sharp for such sweet sentiment; but otherwise his brisk yet flexible timing allowed the whole talented company to, show off its paces. In particular, Anne Collins created a memorable Zita, and the ensemble was brightened by some lustrous top notes from Anne Conoley as Nella. Thomas Hemsley in the name part once again showed what a gifted and thoughtful artist he is. Perhaps his restraint clashed a little with his loud costume and the updated staging. But his instincts were surely sound; some of this production's vivid actuality could profitably have been loaned to the Bartok piece in exchange for a share of deeper significance.
In these respects The Lambton Worm seemed curiously segmented. It should perhaps he explained that in Oxford (whether dictionaries or operas) a worm still retains its archaic primary meaning of a serpent, snake or dragon. The present specimen is fished from a stream, in rudimentary form, by sportive young Sir John Lambkin. During his absence from home, it grows and matures in secret, only to emerge on the rampage when he returns: quite a coincidence. He vows that before it does any more damage to life and property it must now be put down, as it was first pulled up, by his own hand. His victory is bought at the modest price of a curse on his own seed; according to the Durham legend on which the libretto is based, no Lambtons for nine generations died in their beds. However, they may well have died in someone else's: by clear implication, the Worm is a prominent and permanent part of sinful human nature.
To judge by the latest volume of Anne Ridler's admirable poetry, she has deliberately hollowed out her present style to make room for music. Her dragon certainly offers a gripping tale; but its striking symbols, with their powerfully Freudian reverberation, have been delegated to the orchestra and Robert Sherlaw Johnson, who composed and conducted the score with fine musicianship. But he too has to pay a price for his success. Thus in order to express the intimate link between hero and monster the score has to be riddled with worm-motifs, rather to the detriment of its structure. Nor are the drama's brighter moments of loving colloquy, bold resolution or youthful play clearly reflected in musical images; instead, the mood of fraught tension is drummed home with little abatement or relief. When the orchestra speaks for itself, without fear of contradiction from the sung words or the stage action (well directed by Michael Gearin-Tosh), its tones can be truly compelling; thus in the culminating prelude, which foretells the worm's undoing and hence the denouement, the invention takes a stronger and more vital turn. The music can also serve to sustain or develop character, as evidenced by the Wise Woman of Kate Eckersley and the young hero of Richard Lloyd Morgan, among other noteworthy performances. But in general the impression of two different wavelengths led to a mixed reception.