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Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle

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Title : Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle
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Bartók: Bluebeard's Castle

If you were like me a couple of weeks ago, you might have had a look at/listen to Bluebeard's Castle by Bartók and said, what is this about? This is, after all, a pretty weird piece. I listened to it a couple of times while working through a whole box of Bartók and honestly, I couldn't make any sense of the music. So I decided to have another look at it and found a couple of filmed versions with subtitles so I could actually, you know, know what was going on. Listening to it sung in German or Hungarian without translated subtitles is not going to get you very far.

Bluebeard's Castle is a kind of expressionist fairy tale with the typical structure of a fixed number of stages or challenges. There are only two singing roles: Duke Bluebeard and Judith his new wife. He brings her to his dark castle. Bluebeard's castle has seven locked doors, behind them are:

  1. Torture chamber with bloody walls
  2. Armory with blood-stained weapons
  3. Treasury with gold and gemstones
  4. Garden with beautiful flowers
  5. A rocky abyss, view of the domain
  6. Pool of white still water of tears
  7. Bluebeard's three previous wives, as living effigies
The work, composed in 1911, has been called "one of the great early twentieth century operas" (Abbate, Carolyn; Parker, Roger. A History of Opera (p. 447). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition) and it might be compared to Schoenberg's Erwartung, composed just two years earlier, in 1909, as another example of psychological expressionism. The Bartók work is carefully structured, beginning in F#, moving to C in the middle when the castle is bathed in light and returning to F# and darkness at the end. Each door unveils its own unique orchestration, brass fanfares for the armory, harp arpeggios and flute trills for the garden and so on.

A lot of, to my mind, odd interpretations have grown up around the work. Some have even thought that Judith is the villain, invading the private world of Bluebeard and forcing him to give up his secrets. In a recent staging, Judith is a police detective who frees the three previous wives and kills the perpetrator. A more balanced view might see this as a primarily symbolic work that delves into the problems and challenges of man/woman relationships. Or maybe it is just a critique of serial divorce!

The most unique feature of the opera is the seven doors with their seven varying contents. These are obviously aspects of Duke Bluebeard's personality that are step by step revealed to his new bride. The torture chamber might be seen as the cruel facet, the armory the assertive, the treasury the acquisitive, the garden the aesthetic and so on. A thorough examination of the work would look at the details of how Bartók characterizes each aspect. The final door shows the previous wives as the dawn, midday and evening of what, one's relationships? Then Judith is installed as the night and darkness falls. I see this as a rich field for interpretive investigation.

However you see it, it is certainly a powerful work and the unique structure makes the narrative work. Here is a 1988 performance with English subtitles that was broadcast on the BBC. For some reason Blogger doesn't want to embed, so just follow the link:

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