Days before a Toronto production of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle is to begin, the principal performers are rehearsing. The Canadian bass baritone Gerald Finley and the Swedish mezzo soprano Charlotte Hellekant sing about light, darkness and secrets. The score to Bartók’s only opera is ominous, the mood is intense and the whole thing is just a little terrifying.
Then, Finley’s Bluebeard smiles and makes Hellekant’s Judith, the confused wife, a cup of instant coffee. The scene turns gentle and warm. This isn’t the gothic horror tale that opera fans have come to know. Rather, the setting is domestic and poignant. What have they done to Bluebeard, and what happened to the castle?
The version of the 1918 one-act opera being presented this week at Toronto’s Fleck Dance Theatre by Against the Grain Theatre is a radical retelling that reframes the traditionally fantastical piece as a love story between a long-married couple living with a wife’s dementia.
It was created by director Daisy Evans and conductor-arranger Stephen Higgins of London’s Theatre of Sound, and first mounted by that company at a former church in London in 2021. Evans and Higgins will helm the three Toronto shows.
“In this version, everything is minimalized,” says the Ottawa-raised and England-based Finley. “But the emotions are still raw.”
The grey-bearded 63-year-old international superstar performed in Theatre of Sound’s premiere production – “a devastating piece of theatre,” wrote the Guardian newspaper – but his history with Bluebeard goes back to 2019, with a more traditional production at the Metropolitan Opera, which was inspired by film noir and had a sinister-looking Finley wearing a single black leather glove.
He sang the text in Hungarian at the Met, competing with a full orchestra on one of the world’s largest operettic stages. In the Theatre of Sound production, with new English libretto from Evans, there are just seven musicians.
“At the Met, you have to sing full out all the time, and the emotions are very big and very stentorian,” Finley explains. “But with this chamber version, it’s about really living these incredibly sharp-edged emotions. Because the audience is so close, they’re capable of seeing the smallest inflections, the smallest reactions and the little darts of pain, of rejection, of anxiety and of the struggle, really, that the characters are going through.”
A mind might be a terrible thing to waste, but a fragmenting mind is something fascinating to explore dramatically. Some Toronto theatregoers will remember Coal Mine Theatre’s The Father featuring Eric Peterson in 2019; film fans can look to Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, Viggo Mortensen’s Falling and the Julianne Moore-starring Still Alice as examples of high achievements in the genre.
The best dementia dramas tend to be the ones that consider the carers (usually spouses or children) as much as the afflicted. Pasts are recollected contrarily; presents are experienced differently. Such is the case with this version of Bluebeard’s Castle.
“The wife is existing in a world which from the outside is very normal, but to her is confusing,” Finley says. “She’s having memories which fit into her world, but which don’t fit into Bluebeard’s. And that is the scenario of dementia.”
Finley describes this Bluebeard’s Castle as “intimate.” And while the Toronto venue seats a maximum of 450 people, it is still opera. The voices of Finely and Hellekant are anything but small, and the drama can still be expected to be towering. It is the circumstance that is scaled back to ordinary, relatable proportions.
During the original London run of the chamber-sized Bluebeard’s Castle, a concert version of the traditional Bluebeard was presented by the 111-member London Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall. Both versions earned ecstatic reviews from a critic who saw them on the same day.
“On the basis of the same architectural drawing of the music, you can have completely different, intense, fulfilling and transporting experiences,” Finley says. “That’s the glory of what theatre is and what performing arts is.”
Against the Grain presents Theatre of Sound’s Bluebeard’s Castle at Fleck Dance Theatre, March 29, 31 and April 1. Information at atgtheatre.com.
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