To celebrate the centenary of the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, two fine English companies recently combined their talents and presented a triple bill of his stage works.
The English National Opera Company staged "Duke Bluebeard's Castle" and the London Festival Ballet Company danced "The Wooden Prince" and the "Miraculous Mandarin" in a 3 1/2-hour program.
Bartok, born in 1881 in the Hapsburg region which today is part of Romania, defied the tastes of his times in all three works and had to fight to have them staged. Musicians threatened walkouts because of the difficult music, and no Hungarian conductor would take on "The Wooden Prince." Egisto Tango, the Italian conductor, finally agreed to do it, providing he could have 30 rehearsals. He got them. On May 12, 1917, the ballet had its premiere and was a huge success. Almost a year later the opera was presented in a double bill with the ballet.
"Duke Bluebeard's Castle" was interestingly staged for the London celebrations. Unlike the BBC television version shown here earlier, the opening of the seven locked doors by Judith, the duke's new wife, was not done literally. Instead, a large kaleidoscopic light pattern pulsated against the back curtain, suggesting the contents behind each door: tiny gold flecks for the treasury, greens and blues for his magic garden, each slowly giving way to red -- for traces of blood -- as Judith learns more of his violent past. It was most effectively done.
The role of Judith was strongly sung by Elizabeth Connell. Duke Bluebeard, dressed surprisingly all in gray, was sung somewhat stiffly and without emotion by John Tomlinson.
Bartok's audiences preferred the lighter touches of a "Merry Widow." Even today his opera is unusual. It uses such a big orchestra that the timpani and percussion spilled out of the orchestra pit and filled one of the boxes.
"The Wooden Prince" was of particular interest to me, since it is also being staged by the Bolshoi Ballet Company in Moscow, where I have just spent 4 1/2 years. Friends in Moscow have written to tell me the premiere there was "not a sensation." The London Festival production is undoubtedly very different from the more conservative Bolshoi.
Here the ballet is set in old Chinese court costumes. They are beautiful but make it obviously difficult for most dancers to move freely. Described in the program notes as a "dancing play in one act," it seemed more a pantomine than a ballet. It is the rather bewildering story of a Prince who woos a Princess while a fairy invokes waves, trees, flowers, and servants to get in his way.
But what a spectacular opening scene! The curtains parted to show an elemental set of scaffolding and ladders, leading to a jellyfish-shaped "pagoda." Posed dancers stood statue-still in bright orange, green, blue, and black costumes.
Leading ballerina Patricia Ruanne -- the fairy -- was suspended above the stage by a lenght of orange silk and was slowly lowered. Her face was heavily made up under a huge, decorative headpiece, long gold hands and nails settled on her extrawide crinolineshaped black dress appliqued with patterned materials. From the back waved enough silk scarves to greet a royal wedding. She was so encased that she had to turn her whole body stiffy like a clockwork doll.
The stunning costumes overshadowed Matz Skoog as the Prince, showing his talent as an actor and proving himself an energetic, nonstop dancer; Frederic Jahn-Werner, the tall, aristocratic Wooden Prince; and Jane Scott -- who stepped in at the moment -- as a Princess with a lovely lightness to her movements.
Last, from the world of make-believe to brutality and violence in the inner city, came the ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin." The subject matter of BArtock's third stage work deals with a prostitute used by a gang of thugs to lure victims , whom they then rob. It caused such an outcry that the first performance in Cologne became its last. The ballet was finally staged in Prague but the Hungarian people didn't see it until December 1945, 10 weeks after Bartok passed on in New York.
The 1961 Bolshoi production, called "Night City," had a toned-down plot.Leading roles were danced by Nina Timofeyeva and Maris Liepa. However, the London Festival Ballet Company danced it explicity, following the original plot. "The Boys" were tireless in throwing the rubber body of "The Girl," Caroline Humpston. Although well-done, the ballet had too much running and too many acrobatic feats. Ballet technique suffered and i t became a gymnastic show en pointe.