From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Bluebeard’s Castle by Béla Bartók

Bluebeard was first composed in 1911, and then modified in 1917. The opera lasts 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. The scene above comes just after the prologue and their entrance; I think most of the other scenes are available for viewing online (if you’re interested).

I saw a concert production by the Seattle Symphony last year, in which blown glass sculptures by Dale Chihuly were used to represent each of the seven doors Judith demands be opened. It was an elegant production, very well sung by Sally Burgess and Charles Robert Austin, although it was presented more as a child’s fairy tale version than what is called for in the creepy libretto by Béla Balázs. Seattle Opera staged its version, or rather a version that was developed by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto (perhaps Mr. Burrell saw the original production back in 1993. Or maybe he was watching Transformers.) This version is much more theatrical, which is to say that it is theatrical, and fairly creepy – especially towards the end, when Bluebeard prostrates himself before his rather gruesome, polygamous achievement.

Even creepier was the second feature on the bill, Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (“Expectation”), composed in 1909. Schoenberg himself said about the work, “In Erwartung the aim is to represent in slow motion everything that occurs during a single second of maximum spiritual excitement, stretching it out to half an hour.” I thought this was achieved last night, and enjoyed it quite a bit more than Bluebeard, even though I’ve been familiar with Antal Dorati’s recording of the Bartok opera for years. I haven’t listened to much Schoenberg at all, much less Erwartung, and was surprised at how conventional it sounded. Music has moved moved into some awfully strange territory over the last century, and however weird the 12 tone scale may have seemed in fin de siècle Prague, I found it straightforward enough. The productiion was pretty amazing, with three non-singing roles played by acrobats who made much of that slow motion called for by the composer.

As an endnote, both Bartók and Walker Percy suffered from tuberculosis and lived within shouting distance at Saranac, “America’s Magic Mountain”, in 1945. This was at the very end of Bartók’s life, and he was certainly productive enough: while living in one of the cabins there, he composed the magnificent Third Piano Concerto, as well as the Viola Concerto. Percy’s first novel, The Moviegoer, was still 15 or 16 years away, and according to one of the biographies, there wasn’t much, if any, contact between the two.


  1. Anonymous says

    Yes, I often think of Bluebeard. What a great story.

  2. Henri Young says

    What about the Richard Burton movie?

  3. I remember when this production was staged in Toronto, but no, I didn’t see it. I don’t get to the opera as often as I’d like.

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