Bartók: Bluebeard’s Castle

performed by Jessye Norman, László Polgár and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Pierre Boulez, or below by Anne Sofie von Otter, John Tomlinson and the Berlin Philharmonic under Bernard Haitink

(There’s also an English version with Gwynne Howell, Sally Burgess and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under Mark Elder, and is obviously convenient for ease of understanding, but the original language version is far preferred. It’s also just so astounding to hear people like Norman and von Otter sing in Hungarian!)

Before we begin, some resources:

I would love to quote the entire opening lines of this opera. They are chilling when spoken in Hungarian (as here, in the above-linked English version, a spine-tingling whisper before the English translation begins). It is a warning spoken in six verses, that ends (per Chandos) with the lines:

Old is this castle
Old is the tale enclosed by its walls
Observe carefully.

Unlike its partner this week, Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (or A kékszakállú herceg vára in the original Hungarian) is described as a one-act opera, not a monodrama. After all, we have two characters, as well as a narrator.

As the name suggests, the opera is focused on the story of Bluebeard, from the French fairytale of the same (ish?) name by Charles Perrault. If you don’t know it, it’s not a feel-good, but it sounds like it should start that way. As Wikipedia says:

The opera lasts only a little over an hour and there are only two singing characters onstage: Bluebeard (Kékszakállú), and his new wife Judith (Judit); the two have just eloped and Judith is coming home to Bluebeard’s castle for the first time.

The libretto for the work was written (in Hungarian) by the poet Béla Balázs, a friend of the composer. It was completed in 1911, and first performed on 24 May 1918 in Budapest at the Royal Hungarian Opera House.

Apparently Balázs had the idea for the libretto on his own, before Bartók approached him, maybe… The roommate of Balázs at the time was one Zoltán Kodály, and it seems it was written for him, later dedicated to Kodály and Bartók, but the latter was the one who decided to complete it. He hastened its completion to enter it into two competitions, neither of which it won.

The success of Bartók’s ballet The Wooden Prince helped him to land a performance of the opera, in 1918, but the poet/librettist was exiled from Hungary the following year, so there were no revivals until 1936. Its first American performance was in, of all places, Dallas, Texas, with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Doráti, a student of Bartók, for a radio broadcast, but the first fully-staged production was a few years later, in 1952 at the New York City Opera. Surprisingly, it wasn’t premiered in Austria (I almost think this must be an error) until 1978, and the Taiwanese premiere, which I tragically missed, was not until 2011, just down the road.

The Story

(Spoiler alerts)

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Bluebeard, the Wikipedia article for the original story says:

The tale tells the story of a wealthy violent man in the habit of murdering his wives and the attempts of one wife to avoid the fate of her predecessors… Bluebeard is a wealthy and powerful man, yet a frighteningly ugly nobleman who has been married several times to beautiful women who have all mysteriously vanished.

He picks the youngest of the neighbor’s daughters to marry at a banquet, and takes her far away from her home to live, against her will, with the frightening wealthy man, who after some time, announces that he must travel abroad, and leaves her the keys to the castle. With them, she can access any room of the dwelling, except for a chamber in the bowels of the castle, which she is eventually obviously overcome with curiosity to explore, despite her husbands threats of violence.

Obviously, she finds bloodied rooms and corpses of former brides, and is understandably terrified, asking her sister for help. Unexpectedly, the husband returns early, but I’ll leave the rest of the story and its dramatic conclusion for your own discovery.

But that’s the story, and I think most people are rather familiar with it, and if you’re not, go read a bit more about it. It provides lots of room for very interesting character development, interaction, etc. As a side note, the opera begins with Judith, Bluebeard’s new wife, arriving at her new home, so the banquet and neighbors and choosing of the youngest daughter are not included.

So, pretty simply, that’s the story. But what does Bartók do with it?

The Staging

The real focus of this work is on discovery, uncovering, exploring, and very literally opening doors. Hence, as Wikipedia says:

Traditionally, the set is a single dark hall surrounded by the seven doors around the perimeter. As each door is opened, a stream of symbolically colored light comes forth (except in the case of the sixth door, for which the hall is actually darkened).

Imagine what opportunities there are visually for this setup, even just sticking to the ‘traditional’ interpretation. What could lie outside that? In any case, there are seven doors, and they’re listed on Wiki as follows:

  1. (The torture chamber) Blood-red
  2. (The armory) Yellowish-red
  3. (The treasury) Golden
  4. (The garden) Bluish-green
  5. (The kingdom) White (the stage directions read: “in a gleaming torrent, the light streams in”, “blue mountains”)
  6. (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
  7. (The wives) Silvery (stage directions: “silver like the moon”)

That aside, there isn’t much in the way of different sets or stories, or even characters, so it’s nice that there’s a lot to work with visually with just those doors and colors and what they represent. Thankfully, this is represented musically, as we shall discuss presently.

The Music

We’ve discussed Bartók rather a lot lately. Last month, we addressed his second string quartet, where the interval of a second, either major or minor, was key. This work precedes that one by five or six years, but it, too, makes use of that nervous, strained interval. Wiki says that “The minor second is referred to as the ‘blood’ motif, for it is used whenever Judith notices blood in the castle.”

That aside, we’re really in familiar-ish territory if you’ve read any of the recent Bartók articles:

Overall the music is not atonal, although it is often polytonal, with more than one key center operating simultaneously (e.g. the leadup to the climactic opening of the fifth door).

It wouldn’t be mistaken for anything (even late) 19th century for sure, but it contrasts pretty strongly with, say, Schoenberg’s one-act monodrama from earlier in the week, of which it is a contemporary.

Harmonically, Wikipedia continues to describe its overall structure, and some suggest that it moves from F# through to C in the central part of the work (as far away from F# as possible) and back to F# toward the end. This could easily be suggested as a connection or expression of polar opposites, and light and darkness are suggested as options.

Overall, the music is extremely rich, colorful, even without the visual elements of the doors and actual colors as cues. I’d say it certainly presents far less challenge to uninitiated listeners than Schoenberg’s work.

The Meaning

The real meaning behind the story may rightly be more attributed to Perrault’s mind than Bartók’s, but it does seem that the composer identified with the more abstract, symbolic representation of Bluebeard and what he’s hiding. Hungarian conductor István Kertész claims, as Wikipedia says, that “Bluebeard was Bartók himself, and that it portrays his personal suffering and his reluctance to reveal the inner secrets of his soul, which are progressively invaded by Judith.”

Skeletons in the closet, quite literally.

That shouldn’t really be a new idea to anyone, that we all have things we store away, or compartmentalize, or hide from others, facets of our personality or past that we’d like to ignore, but maybe still have locked away somewhere deep down rather than purged and thrown out.

This is especially the case, perhaps, with Bartók himself, who was known to be a very private individual. Kertész goes so far as to suggest that Judith is the real villain in the story, invading her husband’s privacy, but there are even more than just these two interpretations to be told.

And while that may be a very simple, straightforward, even tragically oversimplified presentation of Bartók’s only opera, I feel it gives a decent impression of the potential that this story has. I make no attempt to convey its effectiveness or to tell you all the thoughts it could express and the feelings it could communicate to audiences.

The Wonder

Along with the other two works we’ve discussed so far, from Debussy and Schoenberg, this work too presents an experience. It’s not storytelling just to pass the time. The presentation of the story isn’t just telling you information, but also asking questions.

In the moment, there is an experience, the triggering of emotions, be they love, fear, hatred, sorrow, but all of those together, once finished, linger, and they do so because they ask questions, or dare to present predicaments that the viewer/listener is challenged to reconcile, to work out for themselves.

The end result, then, is an exquisitely crafted production, an engineered experience, all happening in sort of a vacuum, within the confines of a safe distance, while still giving us the emotions of having experienced it ourselves. It affects the listener both during and after, and maybe even before. It’s not just something to pass the time, tells us something important but also asks important questions.

So if anyone is still debating the importance of opera, solely from a listener’s perspective, these are examples of why it is immensely powerful, working on so many levels with so many senses, and why it is an incredible joy to experience live, even (or in some cases especially) if the subject matter isn’t a terribly happy one.

We’ll be seeing more of Bartók not this weekend, but actually next, in conjunction with a piece that likely influenced the one of his we’ll be discussing. That aside, we have two more rather large pieces coming up next week, one of which being the entire reason this series for this month was planned, so please do stay tuned, and as always, thank you for reading.


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