Bluebeard’s Castle offers a psychological thrill as we push the inner door’s of a man’s soul one by one. Based on the French folktale ‘Barbe bleue’, Bartok dedicated the opera that’s about the discovery of a Duke’s murdered ex-wives to his wife Marta Ziegler who may have a hard time sleeping after the premiere.
While the aim was to turn the castle into light; after the seven attempt, we are transformed from darkness to darkness (but a different kind). Along with the traditions of the 20th century, this thriller should be seen as a symbolistic interpretation of the fairytale; it’s not just a plot, we are asked to question ourselves as Judith demands the facts of the past. Prologue of the opera clearly states that by asking ‘where is the stage?’.
Different from the Maeterlinck’s play of the tale, opera spends a significant time for the opening of the doors. All drama is driven by the process of the opening doors rather than what’s beneath them. Opera begins Bluebeard asking Judith if she’s sure about her decision. He’s expression is rather plain and simple while Judith’s harmony is much richer and rhythmically variable as if she’s try to convince herself to enter the castle. Right when she decides to come inside, the actual thriller begins with a strong start with the orchestra. He questions why she came with him (because she already heart the rumours about him). Judith answers: because she wants to warm and dry the castle. She mistakes her love for him with her ambition to change him; she’s so calm, determined and even excited both harmonically and melodically. In order to change him, she has to go through the seven rooms. I wonder if she’s thinking by doing that, she would be able to change him while no other women could; but only doing the same mistake as them and lead to a destined similar ending. She pushed him, tried to change him and couldn’t get satisfied with the answers, demands more of him past, and at each door manipulated the Duke with her love and words. Don’t we do that in our relationships sometimes?
She went through seven doors; torture chamber, armoury, treasure, secret garden, kingdom, sea of tears, corps of the ex-wives. In each one, Judith sees blood with the motif of a minor second. In each room, played with different instruments (obuas and trumpets in torture room; harps in treasury), she became obsessed with blood. Even in the garden or treasure, she can’t be satisfied by the offerings of the Duke and she pushes and pushes for more. At the seventh door, she questions her past loves, who he loved the most, and getting no answer concludes that rumours are correct (as if she want them to be). this is a typical tactic seen in unhealthy relationship where you assume something worse to get the question you asked about the past. You conclude to something exaggerated by interpreting denying answers is worse then the answer itself. This is what Judith does here.
The music is polytonal (opening of the fifth door for the kingdom) but at the door 3 music is mostly tonal (treasure room). In fact the overall key plan for the opera confirms our first theory of circling from darkness to darkness with a small touch of a light in the middle. It starts with F#, modulates to C major and get back to the original key of F#.
This piece is very open to push the limits of staging since it’s a 20th century opera that Hitchcock certainly would approve. Met Opera’s 2015 production of Trelinsky (double bill with Iolanta) tells the modern version of the fairytale. Rather than 7 doors, we are moving with an elevator and with each door there’s only minor differences; we don’t enter a different mode and world as accustomed with the traditional staging (different colour scheme in each door). Even bolder production of Bayerische Opera House double bills the Concerto for Orchestra where Bartok used the same motives of Bluebeard’s Castle with the opera. Katie Mitchell creates a different plot where Judith is the police detective and investigates Bluebeard and rescues the three ex-wives. There are many positive critics and you can still experience it in BSO’s 2021 season.
This is clearly more than just a thriller; Bartok asked audience to pay close attention to the story in the prologue. The piece started with Duke questioning Judith, but at the end it was Judith never satisfied with answers and convince him seven times to open the doors ‘because she loves him’. I believe, yes, she loves him. In an unhealthy, addictive way where she loves the idea of changing him; her capability to achieve her aim. We learn everything about Bluebeard and heart nothing about Judith in libretto. But at the end, it was Judith we understand deeply. As always, love makes us do crazy things.