The story of Bluebeard, popularised by the French writer Charles Perrault in his 1659 version, is among the oldest and best-known European folk tales. It differs from telling to telling, but invariably revolves around the arrival of a young bride at the home of her mysterious older husband, and the discovery of the murdered corpses of an array of former wives.
First performed in Budapest in 1918, Béla Bartók’s operatic adaptation of the tale, Bluebeard’s Castle, presents a pared-down and minimalist approach to the story. Featuring only two singing parts: the eponymous Bluebeard and his bride Judith, the opera takes us on a journey through the grounds of the castle as a series of seven doors reveal increasingly forbidding rooms, leading inevitably to Judith’s discovery of her husband’s secret and her own doom. The details of the locations are communicated to us through Judith’s words in flowing, poetic language, while Bluebeard’s replies are largely abrupt and unforthcoming – that is, until the opera’s final scenes, when the revelation of his crimes leads him to wax lyrical about his passion for the unfortunate women entombed in his palace.
Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall last Tuesday as a purely musical spectacle, the opera was deprived of all visual aspects – though this did allow for a greater appreciation of the dramatic musical impact of Bartók’s composition. As Judith unlocks each door, a new sonic landscape is opened up. The treasure chamber with its “mountains of gold! Fabulous gems!” sparkles with a lilting harp, while the door that opens to reveal the vastness of Bluebeard’s kingdom (“silken meadows, velvet forests, tranquil streams of winding silver. Lofty mountains blue and hazy!”) unleashes an expansive, full-bodied orchestral sound, with mighty strikes of string and brass. There’s a sudden change in tone as the sixth door opens to uncover the lake of tears left by Bluebeard’s victims, leading to a huge crescendo as Judith implores him to “open me the last of your doorways.”
The Royal Festival Hall performance rounded off, in fine form, an evening of Hungarian (or in the case of Berlioz’s Rakoczi March, Hungarian-inspired) music. Neither Ildikó Komlósi nor Willard White hit a wrong note in the respective roles of Judith and Bluebeard – particularly impressive as they were standing in for Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó, who were forced to withdraw due to poor health. Combined with Charles Dutoit’s fine conducting they ensured that, almost a century on from its premier, Bartók’s opera remains as vibrant as ever.
Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle was performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre on 27th January. Charles Dutoid conducted the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, with Ildikó Komlósi (mezzo-soprano) and Willard White (bass) in the singing roles.