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There is a special amazement with art that hides art. Think of a Bach keyboard piece with two beautifully interweaving lines played by the two hands and you could never detect, unless told, that one line was the other in reverse.
Not just a lonely intellectual diversion for an artist, it's something capable of making a real impact on an audience. Bartók's opera Bluebeard's Castle is full of this endeavour, and it seems to achieve this impact on the Gaiety Theatre audience at its Irish premiere by the fledgling Irish National Opera on Friday night, exactly a century after its Budapest premiere, in 1918.
Hidden from view is Bartók's effort to apply to his music the same mathematical principles – such as various symmetries and ratios and the idea of the "golden section" – which can be discerned and measured in the beauty of both nature and art. On Friday its mysterious impact seems evident in the response of the audience, which afterwards, despite so many other things to admire in INO's new production by the director Enda Walsh, speaks above all about the emotional power of the music.
We might not be aware of the way Bartók's arc from darkness to dazzling light and back is underpinned by a journey from F sharp minor to C major and back. But we sure feel it. People speak afterwards of a chill, of exultation, of a final despair and emptiness. Of beauty, power. Bartók's achievement, largely realised by the conductor André de Ridder, is additionally remarkable on Friday given the reduction of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra's string complement because of the Gaiety's tiny pit. Maybe the fresh operatic impetus of INO will lead eventually to a Dublin Bluebeard in a real house.
The music is matched in performance by the Kerry-born mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy as Judith in a rare Irish interlude from her burgeoning American and European career. From the softest whisper to her high C at the opening of the castle's fifth door, and in Bartók's deliberate mismatch between Judith's initial optimism and the dark oppression of the orchestra, Murrihy thrills with her voice while fully inhabiting her symbolic assignment with her presence.
She is ideally paired with the bass Joshua Bloom, who, as Bluebeard, momentarily shares the hope Judith brings before returning to despair. The castle's seven doors, which Judith insists on opening, are compellingly portrayed in Jack Phelan's video projections. The designer Jamie Vartan's juxtaposition of decay and glamour culminates in the closing appearance of Bluebeard's previous wives as pallid, dusty and frightening living dead.