I didn't have especially high hopes of this pair of productions in advance, though Barry Kosky is clearly highly rated by some within the opera world including the Komische Oper, Berlin and Jonathan Mills. It wasn't as awful as his reinvention of Poppea back at EIF 2007, but in some ways Bluebeard's Castle was rather more of an endurance test.
In an interview I glanced at Kosky claims that he saw the pieces as completely separate entities. But in fact, to my mind, a similarly indecisive vision bedevils both of them – it's just that the music transcended it better in Dido and Aeneas. Now to be fair to the director, there are moments which work. After an opening to Dido which made me fear this was going to be non-interaction in extremis, there is some convincing direction of the romance between the two lovers. In Bluebeard it is a nice idea to have golden dust falling from two clenched fists as a symbol of weath for that particular door. The realisation of the lake of tears ought to have worked similarly well, but paled rather against Idle Motion's use of a similar device on the Fringe earlier in the week. But these moments have to do battle with Kosky's indecisive overall approach.
My sense is that he took a decision not to use either the original settings, or indeed any kind of concrete settings. Thus Dido and Aeneas takes place in a highly constricted grey/white space essentially in front of the curtain, and Bluebeard's Castle takes place on a revolving white disk (behind which as at the Chinese Coriolanus the backstage of the Festival Theatre is spread out on view). There are thus also plenty of the usual moments when the text is telling you that the characters are doing something (Bluebeard's keys, Dido laying her head on Belinda's bosom for example) and those characters are in fact doing no such thing. The first issue here is that Kosky is not consistent in applying this. There's no castle and no doors in the Bluebeard but yet we see some kind of visual representation of each thing evoked behind those doors – it was unclear to me why some of the setting took visual form and some of it was nowhere to be seen. The second problem is that Kosky sometimes just loses control. Having staged Dido's Lament perfectly acceptably with the doomed queen alone on stage he then has her utter panic breathing groans all through the final chorus. In theory this is presumably intended to be her death agonies, in practice it's disruptive and unconvincing. In this department also go the nude pair who hover about the place during Dido, utterly pointlessly.
In Dido I found the confused production did not make it impossible to enjoy the performance. It is generally well sung, Paula Murrihy in the title role and Dimity Egorov as the First Witch are particularly fine. Constantinos Carydis draws spirited playing from the orchestra, though they sounded occasionally a little too eager to get to the bar.
In Bluebeard it was another story. I reckon on reflection that that slowly spinning white disc was the third most exhausting thing to have to watch for an extended period on stage that I have ever seen (it doesn't quite beat the longer sufferings of the recent ENO Julius Caesar or Act Three of the Canadian Opera Siegfried). In this instance, for me the visual design sucked all the tension and life out of the piece. I felt as if the music was slowed to funereal pace, neither of the two singers (who I suspect had I been able to listen more objectively were singing perfectly acceptably) made any impression on me vocally or dramatically. Possibly if I'd closed my eyes at an earlier stage it would have rescued it, but by the time I tried that the staging had had such a negative effect that it was too late.
Some got a lot more out of this performance, including the friend who was with me who interestingly had an almost reversed experience finding it far more difficult to get on with Dido. For me this was another in what has been a pretty dismal year of stagings so far (both opera and theatre) at the International Festival.