Psychic purgatory

Opera - Peter Conrad enjoys a thrilling double bill, but is unimpressed by a dull masked ball

Duke Bluebeard's Castle and Erwartung make an accursed pair of sirens, not the blessed couple Milton spoke of when he wedded voice and verse. Bela Bartok's fraught and murderously neurotic dialogue deals with the clash between male power and female need; in Arnold Schoenberg's monodrama, the woman has freed herself from her male oppressor, probably by killing him. Escaping from her incarceration, Schoenberg's nameless heroine wanders in a nocturnal thicket, a dark wood of rearing, phantasmal mental projections.

The two works were created in near proximity. Bluebeard had its premiere in Budapest in 1918, Erwartung was first performed in Prague in 1924. But never can they have been closer than in the Royal Opera's double bill where, thanks to the ingenuity of the director Willy Decker, they overlap. Even the set is intertextual, creating a psychic purgatory that suits both works. Judit pursues Bluebeard through a blitzed ballroom where a fallen chandelier represents all the gods who have tumbled down from the sky. Her interrogation forces open doors in a blackened, oxidised wall. She manages to enter Bluebeard's sanctum of secrecy, and destroys him in doing so. After the interval, the same conflict is re-enacted by Schoenberg's character, who now tries to find her way out of this catacomb of dreams. She picks up a sword from Bluebeard's armoury which Judit had discarded, and uses it to stab the lover she desires and fears. At the end, she retreats behind one of Bluebeard's doors, still inconclusively seeking.

The two heroines - Katarina Dalayman as Judit, Inga Nielsen as the generic Woman - are made equal by their wigs and their scarlet evening gowns, though their voices are hardly interchangeable: Dalayman is a lush mezzo, Nielsen a glaringly bright soprano. (When the Metropolitan Opera paired the same works in 1989, Jessye Norman sang both roles, but such schizoid vocal feats cannot be expected from lesser mortals.) Willard White is a gruff, suffering Bluebeard, reincarnated after the interval in the form of an actor who plays the Woman's tormenter and victim, her imaginary Bluebeard. Usually, the Man in Erwartung is a corpse lying discreetly on the floor (really he doesn't need to be there at all, as she is hallucinating); but here, he duels with her in a haunted afterlife. The monodrama becomes a duet, although one partner is silent.

A prologue to Bluebeard, declaimed by a bard, asks: "Where is the stage, inside or out?" We are outside the castle in Bluebeard, inside it in Erwartung. With its junk and clutter, John F Macfarlane's set evokes the confused contents of the characters' minds and also the historical world they exist in, blasted and scarred by war. But the real drama in both cases occurs underground, in the orchestra. It is here that Bartok's cold lake of tears ripples, and here that Schoenberg's fraying tonality reports on the nervous breakdown of European music. Lothar Zagrosek, the conductor, was raw and strident in Bartok, but managed a finely detailed performance of Schoenberg's spasmodic, unstable score. A fine achievement, emotionally engaging and intellectually thrilling.

Bluebeard and Erwartung are about the psychopathology of opera: musical modernism treated song as a symptom of dementia. Nowadays directors use music to ventilate kinks and quirks, as if the operas they stage were their personal mad scenes. In English National Opera's new production of A Masked Ball, Calixto Bieito administers therapy to himself at Giuseppe Verdi's expense. A cynical publicity campaign presold the show as a guaranteed scandal. Having defiled Don Giovanni with blow jobs and cocaine rushes last year, Bieito would now - we were promised - spice up Verdi's tragicomedy with some thunderous onstage defecation, plus a spot of sodomy for afters. I found it all oddly decorous, drab and tedious rather than inflammatory.

The outrages turned out to be coyly simulated. The male chorus, lined up in a cloaca reading newspapers, shat (or pretended to) with their underpants on. Given my Australian sanitary training, I perhaps apply inappropriately lofty standards in worrying about the underpants; Bieito is Catalan, after all, and we must make allowances. In England, sexual intercourse was invented in 1963, and in Spain, bowel movements arrived only as part of "la Movida", the laxative emancipation of society that followed Franco's death. I wonder how Bieito got his reputation for iconoclasm, because his images are tamely derivative. The doorless cubicles are stolen from Sergei Eisenstein's Strike, where union members at a factory conspire while crapping side by side, and the gun deposited in the toilet tank comes from The Godfather.

Next, a leather boy cruising his way home from a brothel - where he had sampled the protuberant crotch of a sailor, their contact mediated by more underpants - was raped by a fascist soldier. The ephebe kept his red, spangled thong on throughout: a neat prophylactic precaution? More dry humping happened at a voodoo ceremony between a naked couple, smeared in advance with sacrificial gore. She hoisted her knees behind her ears, he clambered into place and metronomically pumped in time to the music. Despite her flailing satisfaction, he had left his erection in the dressing room, and a limp willy flapped between her gaping thighs. Maybe it tickled her to orgasm.

Conspirators then drew lots from a potty, having scribbled their names on a bog roll. Once again, the paper looked pristine. Only Verdi was befouled - or was it the egregious Bieito who had soiled himself?

Bluebeard and Erwartung are in rep at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2 (020 7304 4000), until 11 March; A Masked Ball is at ENO, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC2 (020 7632 8300), until 11 April