Bluebeard's Castle

Bluebeard's Castle

Duke Bluebeard's Castle (Hungarian: A kékszakállú herceg vára; literally: The Castle of the Blue-Bearded Prince) is a one-act opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. The libretto was written by Béla Balázs, a poet and friend of the composer. It is in Hungarian, based on the French fairy tale "Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault. The opera lasts only a little over an hour and there are only two singing characters onstage: Bluebeard (Kékszakállú), and his new wife Judith (Judit); the two have just eloped and Judith is coming home to Bluebeard's castle for the first time.

Bluebeard's Castle was composed in 1911 (with modifications made in 1912 and a new ending added in 1917) and first performed on May 24, 1918 in Budapest. Universal published the vocal (1921) and full score (1925). The Boosey & Hawkes' full score includes only the German and English singing translations while the Dover edition reproduces the Universal Edition Hungarian/German vocal score (with page numbers beginning at 1 instead of 5). A revision of the UE vocal score in 1963 added a new German translation by Wilhelm Ziegler, but seems not to have corrected any errata. Universal Edition and Bartók Records has published a new edition of the work in 2005 with new English translation by Peter Bartók, accompanied by extensive errata list.


Composition history

Balázs originally conceived the libretto for his roommate Zoltán Kodály in 1908, and wrote it during the following two years. It was first published serially in 1910 with a joint dedication to Kodály and Bartók, and in 1912 appeared with the prologue in the collection "Mysteries". Bartók was motivated to complete the opera in 1911 by the closing date of the Ferenc Erkel Prize competition, for which it was duly entered. A second competition, organised by the music publishers Rózsavölgyi and with a closing date in 1912, encouraged Bartók to make some modifications to the work in order to submit it to the Rózsavölgyi competition.

Little is known about the Ferenc Erkel Prize other than that Bluebeard's Castle did not win. The Rózsavölgyi judges, after reviewing the composition, decided that the work (with only two characters and a single location) was not dramatic enough to be considered in the category for which it was entered: theatrical music. It is thought that the panel of judges who were to look at the musical (rather than the theatrical) aspects of the competition entries never saw Bartók's entry.

In 1913 Balázs produced a spoken performance at which Bartók played some piano pieces on a separate part of the program. A 1915 letter to Bartók's young wife, Márta, (to whom he dedicated the opera) ends:

Now I know that I will never hear it in this life. You asked me to play it for you—I am afraid I would not be able to get through it. Still I'll try so that we may mourn it together.[1]

Performance history

The success of the ballet The Wooden Prince in 1917 paved the way for the May 1918 première with the same conductor, Egisto Tango. Oszkár Kálmán was the first Bluebeard and Olga Haselbeck the first Judith. Following Balázs' exile in 1919 and the ban on his work there were no revivals until 1936. Bartók attended rehearsals and reportedly sided with the new Bluebeard, Mihály Székely, over the new conductor Sergio Failoni, who was insisting on fidelity to the printed score. On the Dorati recording Székely displays an assured sense of parlando rubato; less certain is whether Bartók sanctioned some of the changed pitches (or indeed if Székely does them on another recording made with János Ferencsik).

Bluebeard's Castle was first performed in Italy at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino on 5 May 1938. The production was conducted by Sergio Failoni and starred Miklós Székely in the title role and Ella Némethy as Judith. The Teatro di San Carlo mounted the opera for the first time on 19 April 1951 with contralto Isa Malafunk and bass Mario Petri. The work's La Scala debut occurred on 28 January 1954 with American soprano Dorothy Dow as Judith and Petri as Bluebeard. This was followed by several other productions at major opera houses in Italy, including the Teatro Regio di Torino (1961), Teatro dell'Opera di Roma (1962), Teatro Comunale di Bologna (1966), La Fenice (1967), and the Teatro Regio di Parma (1970).

The opera was first performed in the United States in a student production at Southern Methodist University in 1946. The first professional American performance was for NBC radio in 1949 in a performance conducted by Antal Dorati in Dallas, Texas. The first fully staged American production was at the New York City Opera on 2 October 1952 with conductor Joseph Rosenstock and singers Catherine Ayres and James Pease.[2] The Metropolitan Opera mounted the opera for the first time on June 10, 1974 with conductor Sixten Ehrling and singers David Ward and Shirley Verrett.

Bluebeard's Castle received its French premiere on 17 April 1950 in a radio broadcast on Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française. Ernest Ansermet conducted the performance which featured Renée Gilly as Judith and Lucien Lovano as Bluebeard. The first staged production of the work in France was at the Opéra national du Rhin on 29 April 1954 with Heinz Rehfuss in the title role, Elsa Cavelti as Judith, and conductor Ernest Bour. The first performance in Paris was at the Opéra-Comique on 8 October 1959 with soprano Berthe Monmart and bass Xavier Depraz. The production was directed by Marcel Lamy and used a French translation by Michel Dimitri Calvocoressi.

The London première took place on 16 January 1957 at the Rudolf Steiner Theatre during the English tour of Scottish composer Erik Chisholm directing the UCT Opera Company whose Désirée Talbot was Judith. A few years earlier, Erik Chisholm had premièred this work in South Africa at the Little Theatre in Cape Town. The opera's Austrian premiere took place at the Salzburg Festival on the 4 August 1978 with conductor George Alexander Albrecht leading soprano Katalin Kasza and baritone Walter Berry. In Israel the opera premiered on December 15, 2010 at the New Israeli Opera in Tel Aviv. Vladimir Braun was Bluebeard and Svetlana Sandler sang in Judith. Shirit Lee Weiss directed and Ilan Volkov conducted. The sets, originally used in the Seattle Opera performance were designed by famous glass artist Dale_Chihuly.


Role Voice type Premiere Cast,
24 May 1918
(Conductor: Egisto Tango)
Prologue of the Bard spoken
Bluebeard bass or bass-baritone Oszkár Kálmán
Judith soprano or mezzo-soprano Olga Haselbeck
Bluebeard's wives silent

Bartók includes the Castle on the dramatis personæ page.


Illustration by Gustave Doré for Perrault's tale Bluebeard

The basic plot is loosely based on the folk tale "Bluebeard", but is given a heavily psychological reworking—some would say psychoanalytic or psychosexual, (see Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment).

Place: A huge, dark hall in a castle, with seven locked doors.
Time: Not defined.

Judith and Bluebeard arrive at his castle, which is all dark. Bluebeard asks Judith if she wants to stay and even offers her an opportunity to leave, but she decides to stay. Judith insists that all the doors be opened, to allow light to enter into the forbidding interior, insisting further that her demands are based on her love for Bluebeard. Bluebeard refuses, saying that they are private places not to be explored by others, and asking Judith to love him but ask no questions. Judith persists, and eventually prevails over his resistance.

The first door opens to reveal a torture chamber, stained with blood. Repelled, but then intrigued, Judith pushes on. Behind the second door is a storehouse of weapons, and behind the third a storehouse of riches. Bluebeard urges her on. Behind the fourth door is a secret garden of great beauty; behind the fifth, a window onto Bluebeard's vast kingdom. All is now sunlit, but blood has stained the riches, watered the garden, and grim clouds throw blood-red shadows over Bluebeard's kingdom.

Bluebeard pleads with her to stop: the castle is as bright as it can get, and will not get any brighter, but Judith refuses to be stopped after coming this far, and opens the penultimate sixth door, as a shadow passes over the castle. This is the first room that has not been somehow stained with blood; a silent silvery lake is all that lies within, "a lake of tears". Bluebeard begs Judith to simply love him, and ask no more questions. The last door must be shut forever. But she persists, asking him about his former wives, and then accusing him of having murdered them, suggesting that their blood was the blood everywhere, that their tears were those that filled the lake, and that their bodies lie behind the last door. At this, Bluebeard hands over the last key.

Behind the door are Bluebeard's three former wives, but still alive, dressed in crowns and jewellery. They emerge silently, and Bluebeard, overcome with emotion, prostrates himself before them and praises each in turn, finally turning to Judith and beginning to praise her as his fourth wife. She is horrified, begs him to stop, but it is too late. He dresses her in the jewellery they wear, which she finds exceedingly heavy. Her head drooping under the weight, she follows the other wives along a beam of moonlight through the seventh door. It closes behind her, and Bluebeard is left alone as all fades to total darkness.


Traditionally, the set is a single dark hall surrounded by the seven doors around the perimeter. As each door is opened, a stream of symbolically colored light comes forth (except in the case of the sixth door, for which the hall is actually darkened). The symbolic colors of the seven doors are as follows:

  1. (The torture chamber) Blood-red
  2. (The armory) Yellowish-red
  3. (The treasury) Golden
  4. (The garden) Bluish-green
  5. (The kingdom) White (the stage directions read: "in a gleaming torrent, the light streams in", "blue mountains")
  6. (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
  7. (The wives) Silvery (stage directions: "silver like the moon")

These lighting instructions are notably ignored in the movie (not staged) version {reference} of the opera, for which more elaborate, literal sets were constructed.

The slow orchestral introduction to the work is often preceded or overlapped by a spoken prologue, (also by Balázs, but published as "Prologue of the Bard" independently of the play). This poses to the audience the questions "Where is the stage? Is it outside, or inside?" as well as offering a warning to pay careful attention to the events about to unfold. The prologue warns the audience that the morals of the tale can apply to the real world as well as to that of Bluebeard and Judith. The character of the bard (or "regős" in the Hungarian language) is traditional in Hungarian folk music, and the words of the prologue (notably its opening lines "Haj, regő, rejtem") are associated with traditional Hungarian "regősénekek" (Regős songs), which Bartók had previously studied. The prologue is frequently omitted from performances; to some it seems heavy-handed and unnecessary, while to others it fits well with the reworked folktale atmosphere.

The stage directions call also for occasional ghostly sighs that seemingly emanate from the castle itself when some of the doors are opened. These have been implemented differently by different productions, sometimes clearly instrumentally, sometimes vocally and sometimes not easily identifiable.

Music and instrumentation

The most salient characteristic of the music from Bluebeard's Castle is the importance of the minor second, an interval whose dissonance is used repeatedly in both slow and fast passages to evoke aching sadness/disquiet or danger/shock respectively. The minor second is referred to as the 'blood' motif, for it is used whenever Judith notices blood in the castle. Overall the music is not atonal, although it is often polytonal, with more than one key center operating simultaneously (e.g. the leadup to the climactic opening of the fifth door). However, there are some passages (for example, door 3) where the music is tonal and mostly consonant. Many critics have found an overall key plan, as one would find in a tonal piece of music. The opera starts in a mode of F, modulating towards C in the middle of the piece (tonally, the greatest possible distance from F), before returning to F towards the end. The text and setting at these points has suggested to some that the F-C dichotomy represents darkness/light.

The vocal parts are very challenging due to the highly chromatic and speech-rhythm-inflected style that Bartók uses. For non-native speakers, the Hungarian-language libretto can also be difficult to master. These reasons, coupled with the static effect of the stage action, combine to make staged performances of the opera a comparative rarity; it more often appears in concert form.

To support the psychological undertones, Bartók calls for a large orchestra. The instrumentation is as notated below:

4 flutes (the last two double two piccolos), 2 oboes, cor anglais, 3 clarinets in A and B-flat (first and second double two E-flat clarinets, third doubles bass clarinet), 4 bassoons (last bassoon doubles contrabassoon), 4 horns, 4 trumpets in B-flat, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, tamburo piccolo, tamtam, cymbals, suspended cymbals, xylophone (originally a tastiera - usually played by two players), triangle, 2 harps, celesta, organ, and strings.

Eight offstage brass players are also called for (4 trumpets and 4 trombones).


The original German translation by Wilhelm Ziegler appears in the 1921 first edition of the vocal score. In 1963 a revised singing translation by Wilhelm Ziegler replaced it. The English translation printed in the 1963 miniature score is by Christopher Hassall. The one in the full score is by Chester Kallman,[citation needed] another singing translation is that made by John Lloyd Davies for the Scottish Opera in 1989 (in British National Opera Guide #44, 1991). One might expect the subtitling of filmed versions to be literal, but far more often one instead gets plenty of subtext along with Balazs' dialogue. A reasonably faithful version in French is that of Natalia and Charles Zaremba (L'Avant-Scène Opéra, 1992)


Year Cast
Opera House and Orchestra
1955 Endre Koréh,
Judith Hellwig
Walter Susskind,
New Symphony of London
Audio LP: Bartók Records
1956 Mihály Székely,
Klará Palánkay
János Ferencsik,
Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio LP: Hungaroton
1962 Jerome Hines,
Rosalind Elias
Eugene Ormandy,
Philadelphia Orchestra
Audio LP: Sony
Cat: (sung in English)
1962 Mihály Székely,
Olga Szőnyi
Antal Doráti,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio LP: Philips Records
1965 Walter Berry,
Christa Ludwig
István Kertész,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca Records
1973 Yevgeny Kibkalo,
Nina Poliakova
Gennady Rozhdestvensky,
Orchestra of the Bolshoi Theatre
Audio LP: Westminster Records
Cat: (sung in Russian)
1976 Siegmund Nimsgern,
Tatiana Troyanos
Pierre Boulez,
BBC Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Sony
1979 Kolos Kováts,
Sylvia Sass
Georg Solti,
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Audio CD: Decca Records
1979 Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau,
Júlia Varady
Wolfgang Sawallisch,
Bavarian State Orchestra
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
1981 Yevgeny Nesterenko,
Elena Obraztsova
János Ferencsik,
Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera
Audio CD: Hungaroton
1987 Samuel Ramey,
Éva Marton
Ádám Fischer,
Orchestra of the Hungarian State Opera
Audio CD: Sony
1996 John Tomlinson (bass),
Anne Sofie von Otter
Bernard Haitink,
Berlin Philharmonic
Audo CD: EMI Classics
1999 László Polgár,
Jessye Norman
Pierre Boulez,
Chicago Symphony Orchestra
(Winner, Grammy Award for Best Opera Recording, 1999
Audio CD: Deutsche Grammophon
2002 Peter Fried,
Cornelia Kallish
Péter Eötvös,
Radio Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart SWR
(Live Recording; Grammy Nomination 2003)
Audio CD: Hänssler
Cat: 93070
2005 László Polgár,
Ildikó Komlósi
Iván Fischer,
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Audio CD: Philips
Cat: 470 633-2
2006 Peter Fried,
Jessye Norman
Pierre Boulez,
Orchestre de Paris
(Live Recording by Radio France)
Audio CD: House of Opera
Cat: CD4063
2007 Gustáv Beláček,
Andrea Meláth
Marin Alsop,
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: Naxos
2009 Willard White,
Elena Zhidkova
Valery Gergiev,
London Symphony Orchestra
Audio CD: LSO Live

See also


  1. ^ Honti 2006, 182.
  2. ^ "Bluebeard on the Couch", Time Magazine, October 13, 1952. Retrieved 5 June 2008.
  3. ^ Recordings of Bluebeard's Castle on
  • Antokoletz, Elliott. Musical Symbolism in the Operas of Debussy and Bartók: Trauma, Gender, and the Unfolding of the Unconscious, with the collaboration of Juana Canabal Antokoletz. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510383-1
  • Honti, Rita. Principles of Pitch Organization in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Studia musicologica Universitatis Helsingiensis, 14 [13]. Diss. Helsinki University, Helsinki. 2006. ISBN 952-10-3331-2 (2nd ed. 2007.)
  • Kroó, György. 1981. "Data on the Genesis of Duke Bluebeard's Castle". Studia Musicologica Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae 23:79–123. (Includes facsimile of 1912 ending, amongst other things.)
  • Leafstedt, Carl S.: Inside Bluebeard's Castle. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-510999-6

External links

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