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Bluebeard's Castle

About the Work

Béla Bartók
Quick Look Composer: Béla Bartók
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Matthias Goerne, bass-baritone & Michelle DeYoung, mezzo-soprano / Music of Bartók Mar. 8 - 10, 2012
© Peter Laki

Béla Bartók was born in Nagyszentmiklós, Hungary (today Sînnicolau Mare, Romania) on March 25, 1881, and died in New York City on September 26, 1945.  He wrote his one-act opera A kékszakállú herceg vára ("Bluebeard's Castle") in 1911 on a libretto by Béla Balázs.  The premiere took place at the Royal Hungarian Opera, Budapest, on May 24, 1918, under the direction of Egisto Tango, with Olga Haselbeck and Oszkár Kálmán as the two singers.

Bartók's opera runs about an hour in performance.  It calls for two singers: Bluebeard (bass) and Judith (soprano), plus an orchestra of 4 flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolos), 2 oboes, english horn, 3 clarinets (second doubling piccolo clarinet in E flat, third doubling bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (fourth doubling contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, suspended cymbal, xylophone, triangle), 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings.  In addition, four trumpets and four  trombones are added offstage for the scene of the fifth door.

The opera Bluebeard's Castle opens with a spoken prologue, sometime omitted today.  The prologue, written in the style of ancient Hungarian minstrels and storytellers, contains the following lines: "Is the stage inside, is it outside, my lords and fair ladies?"  Indeed, the castle we enter as the deep strings begin to play the somber introduction turns out to be a symbol of the "inside," the deep recesses of the human soul, the real scene for the tragic battle of the sexes which is the subject of the opera.

The Bluebeard legend has a literary history going back many centuries.  The first printed version, in Charles Perrault's collection Ma Mère l'Oye ("Mother Goose," 1697), was based on a much earlier medieval tradition (or even several separate traditions) of tales about wife-killers, forbidden rooms, and tests of love.  By the time Béla Balázs came along, the story had been treated numerous times in short stories, plays and even operas, sometimes in a heroic vein and sometimes with a comic spin.  Balázs (1884-1948), a poet and playwright steeped in French Symbolism and the neo-classical German tragedies of Friedrich Hebbel (later also a noted authority on film), approached the subject from a completely new angle.  He conceived his Bluebeard as a "mystery play" about the relationship between man and woman, combining psychological insight with the tone of ancient balladry. 

Balázs's work-first published as a verse drama but intended as an operatic libretto from the start-lacks a dramatic plot in the conventional sense.  The two characters are onstage the entire time; there are no entrances or exits that usually break up operas and plays into separate scenes.  The whole action consists of Judith entering the castle, and opening, one by one, its seven doors, which symbolize a whole lifetime of experiences, the last one standing for eternal night.  As the prologue suggests, the stage is really "inside:"  the woman struggles to become the man's partner in a psychological sense, but this turns out to be impossible.

Balázs initially proposed the libretto to his close friend and former college roommate Zoltán Kodály who, however, was not attracted to the deeply pessimistic tone of the libretto.  Bartók, on the other hand, found it entirely congenial and set it to music between March and September of 1911-just in time to enter it in an opera competition where it was roundly rejected by the jury as unplayable.  Bartók had to wait seven years before his opera-the only one he would ever write-was staged.  Even then, the Hungarian musicians resisted Bartók's music and the premiere was only possible because of the tireless efforts of a visiting Italian conductor, Egisto Tango.  Another factor that helped Bluebeard was Bartók's ballet The Wooden Prince, a much gentler score written in 1916 and premiered in 1917.  The ballet opened the doors of the Royal Hungarian Opera for Bluebeard when both works were presented as a double bill, under Tango's direction, in 1918.

When the curtain rises, we find ourselves in "a vast, circular, Gothic hall.  Steep stairs at left lead up to a small iron door.  To the right of the stairs seven enormous doors....No windows, no ornamentation.  The hall is empty, dark, and forbidding like a cave hewn in the heart of solid rock."  As Bluebeard ushers Judith into his castle, the music makes us see the dark domain through the eyes of the unsuspecting victim who left behind an ordinary and happy existence (parents, brother, fiancé) to follow the enigmatic Duke.

Each of the castle's seven doors conceals a different aspect of Bluebeard's world.  The Duke surrenders the first five keys willingly, and as the doors open one after another, beams of light begin to illuminate the castle.  The first two doors-the torture chamber and the armory-represent the aggressive side of the male personality, the next two-the treasury and the flower garden-symbolize its poetic aspect.  When the fifth door opens, Bluebeard's entire universe is revealed in all its splendor.  The scene of the fifth door is the musical and emotional climax of the entire opera.  (Since the work begins and ends in the key of F sharp, it is noteworthy that this passage is in C major-the greatest possible distance from F sharp, the opposite pole on the tonal spectrum.)  This climactic moment, however, is also the beginning of the end: Judith is completely overwhelmed by the vastness of Bluebeard's world.  The contrast between the full orchestral sound (including organ and offstage brass) accompanying Bluebeard and Judith's unaccompanied, shy vocal line shows the irreconcilable polarity of the two characters, and also the impossibility of all understanding between them.  Behind each of the first five doors, Judith notices stains of blood on everything:  the weapons, the jewels, even the clouds in the sky cast blood-colored shadows.  From here, the descent into tragedy is a rapid one.  Bluebeard gives Judith the last two keys only with the greatest reluctance.  As the sixth door opens on the lake of tears, the castle becomes noticeably darker again.  And by the time the seventh door opens and Bluebeard's three former wives appear, to be inevitably joined by Judith as the fourth and last woman, the hall is again shrouded in total darkness.  Judith disappears behind the door, and Bluebeard stays behind, doomed to eternal solitude.

Bluebeard's Castle was a major breakthrough in Bartók's artistic evolution.  His largest composition to date, it represents a synthesis of all the major concerns he had had as a composer reaching maturity during the previous decade.  The influence of Debussy, received during several visits to Paris, is evident from the opening (which seems to be a Hungarian folk version of the introduction to Pelléas et Mélisande).  Just as Debussy had transformed the melody of spoken French into music in Pelléas, Bartók strove successfully to do the same in Hungarian, aided by his discovery of old Hungarian folk music.  The original combination of ancient Hungarian and modern French elements gives Bluebeard a unique character.  But questions of national identity aside, the opera broke new ground as a fascinating musical psychodrama and gave rise to many different interpretations without ever yielding all its secrets.