Opera Scotland

Duke Bluebeard's Castle Bluebeard’s Castle; A kékszakállú herceg vára

Music
Béla Bartók (born Nagyszentmiklós, 25 March 1881; died New York, 26 September 1945)

Text
Béla Balázs.

Source
Tale (1697) by Charles Perrault (1628-1703).

Premières
First performance: Budapest (Opera), 24 May 1918.
First UK performance: London (Rudolf Steiner Theatre), 16 January 1957.
First performance in Scotland: Glasgow (Lyric Theatre), 30 January 1957.
Scottish Opera première: Glasgow (Theatre Royal), 24 January 1990.

Background
The subject of the mediaeval libertine Bluebeard seems to have attracted artists in the early years of the twentieth century, dominated as they were by the Symbolist and Expressionist movements. The principal literary example of this trend is Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Ariane et Barbe-bleu (1901). Paul Dukas quickly set this as an opera (1907), and the subject also attracted the attention of the Hungarian playwright Béla Balázs. His version is much shorter and more static, always intended as the basis for an opera in which the orchestra clearly reveals the dark thoughts and emotions of the two characters. It was Bartók’s only opera, and when the Hungarian State Opera brought it to Edinburgh in 1963 it was staged in a triple-bill with his two ballets, The Miraculous Mandarin and The Wooden Prince. When they returned in 1973, only a double-bill was presented, the Prince staying at home.

Characters
Duke Bluebeard (bass)
Judith, his wife (soprano)

Plot Summary
The setting is a dark hall in Duke Bluebeard’s castle. He has just arrived there following his marriage to Judith, and his wife immediately sets out to explore her new environment. She is fascinated by the fact that the room is dominated by a series of seven doors leading off, and she naturally asks her husband where they lead. His negative reaction only has the effect of encouraging her curiosity. She demands that the first door be opened, and it reveals a torture chamber. The second is an armoury, the third a treasury and the fourth a garden. The huge musical climax is reached, with the full orchestra, when the fifth door reveals Bluebeard’s estates outside the castle, brightly lit. Judith has seen blood through all these doors, not just in the torture chamber and armoury but also in the garden and the estates. From now the stage grows darker again, as Bluebeard renews his attempts to dissuade her from continuing. The sixth door reveals a lake of tears, and Judith gradually realises that the constant images of blood indicate that his previous wives have been murdered. However the last door reveals his three previous wives alive, and Judith goes through to join them in captivity.

RECORDINGS

DECCA (1 CD) Sung in Hungarian Recorded 1965

Conductor: István Kertész
London Symphony Orchestra
Christa Ludwig (Judith), Walter Berry (Bluebeard).

The tragically short-lived Hungarian conductor István Kertész left some superb recordings as a result of his years working with the LSO, including many rare works by Dvořák and Kodály among others. However this recording of Bartók’s only opera has stood up well to later competitors. The overall sound quality is excellent, and the two Viennese stars sing quite gloriously. Ludwig has no difficulty with the higher reaches of what is really a soprano role. Berry, usually associated with baritone roles, such as Papageno, Don Alfonso, and Barak, darkens his tone significantly to portray the inherent gloom of Bluebeard’s character.

DECCA (1 CD) Sung in Hungarian Recorded 1979

Conductor: Georg Solti
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Sylvia Sass (Judith), Kolos Kováts (Bluebeard).

Solti’s recording gets off to a superbly atmospheric start with the spoken prologue, usually omitted. István Sztankay delivers this in distinctly creepy tones, and he speaks over the opening bars from the orchestra before the combatants enter. Kolos Kováts immediately sounds like a true bass rather than a baritone. Judith is one of the best recorded performances Sass gave – she made her highly praised British debut, very young, with Scottish Opera as Desdemona at the reopening of the Theatre Royal in 1975, and had a starry, but rather short, international career thereafter.

DG (1 CD) Sung in Hungarian Recorded 1979

Conductor: Wolfgang Sawallisch Bavarian State Opera Orchestra Julia Varady (Judith), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Bluebeard).

Both these singers appeared regularly at the Edinburgh Festival over the years – Fischer-Dieskau throughout his long career, and his wife from 1974, Varady then taking over when Janet Baker withdrew from Scottish Opera’s production of Alceste. They sang together in a memorable concert performance of Bluebeard in the Usher Hall under Walter Weller at the 1984 Festival. This recording shows them both on good form. Varady, though Romanian, is a native Hungarian speaker, and a true soprano. Fischer-Dieskau’s performance shows the meticulous preparation that went into everything this great artist did.

The Cast

Duke Bluebeard
 
Judith
 Bluebeard's new wife
Prologue
 

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