07 Mar 2020

Bluebeard’s Castle, Munich

Last year the world’s opera companies presented only nine staged runs of Béla Bartòk’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

By comparison, Giacomo Puccini’s exactly contemporaneous one-acter, Gianni Schicchi, had nearly 40. Bluebeard is consistently overlooked even though it boasts one of the great orchestral scores of the 20th century and a libretto based on a grippingly eerie tale of considerable existential depth. In an era of tight budgets, moreover, it requires just two lead singers, no chorus and a unit set.

Click here for access to a video stream relating to this production. (available through March 10, 2020)

One reason for this neglect, aside from the need to sing in Hungarian, is that companies struggle to find another one-acter to pair with Bartók’s intensely dramatic and uniquely colored work. Playing the gloomy Bluebeard before the intermission and the effervescent Schicchi afterwards, as some do, is only one of many unsatisfactory solutions.

A subtler problem is posed by the opera’s politically incorrect libretto, written by Béla Balázs, one of the composer’s close friends and a leading Hungarian intellectual of the day. In this retelling, Bluebeard (Kékszakállú, in the evocative Hungarian) is the quintessential strong silent male, a solitary warrior or artist, who resists a loving (but loquacious) young bride’s efforts to pry into his private life—worst of all, he seems to think, into his memories of intimacy with other women. In the end, he can’t cope and locks her away with past conquests in some dark corner of his mind.

Bartók was an intensely private person, so the story may have resonated with him. For 21st century spectators, however, the conceit seems to rest on dated gender stereotypes and a Victorian view of marriage in which honest openness (at least for a man) is unexpected and unwelcome.

In a much-praised new production for the Bayerische Staatsoper (a broadcast of which remains available on the Bavarian State Opera website), the award-winning British director Katie Mitchell addresses both problems in an original way. To open the evening, the orchestra plays the Concerto for Orchestra, another celebrated score written by Bartók exactly a quarter century after the opera. The Bayerisches Staatsorchester (a BMW among pit bands) performed brilliantly under the young Ukrainian, Oksana Lyniv—until recently an assistant to Generalmusikdirektor Kirill Petrenko and now Chief Conductor at the opera in Graz. Her rendition highlights subtle echoes of the earlier work.

During the Concerto, a film by Grant Gee is shown, which rewrites the backstory of the libretto. Bluebeard is no longer a serial monogamist who hopes the next marriage will work, but a psychotic sadomasochist who drugs and kidnaps women, then imprisons them in his cellar. And Judith is not a naïve bride who tries to get her guy to open up, but a police detective who goes undercover, impersonating the type of woman Bluebeard favors in order to entrap him. Instead of being locked up with the ex-wives, she shoots him dead.

This revision renders the opera politically correct in a “Me, too” era. Judith is now an active female role model who stands up to oppression and takes control of her life, while Bluebeard is criminally insane, so, one presumes, deserves what he gets. This also renders the plot more “realistic,” at least in the 21st-century Hollywood sense, in which bad guys are irrepressible monsters and good guys do what needs to be done.

As is so often the case in European operatic productions today, however, reworking the plot inserted superficially realistic detail at the expense of existential depth. Balázs and Bartók expected more. Their libretto, sexist though it may be on the surface, is a classic tragedy. The spoken prologue—often omitted, as in Munich—places the drama inside the characters’ heads.: “Raise the curtain of our eyelids. Where is the stage: outside or within?” Bluebeard and Judith are opposites who attract, thus unwittingly fall into a horrifying trap of their own making. No one gets what they want.

Having banished the suspense that comes from this psychological tension, the Munich production had little choice but to replace it with a series of arbitrary external obstacles, much in the manner of “Made for TV” crime thriller. Will Judith unknowingly take a swig of the drugged drink? Can she keep her gun hidden from Bluebeard? Will she stay in character long enough to get to the last door? Can she detain Bluebeard long enough for the other women to make their escape?

Refocusing the plot on such trivialities diminishes the dramatic stakes and undermines Bartók’s music. This is evident from the start: the film by Gee—who seems never to have worked in opera before—is distractingly unsynchronized with the Concerto, suggesting that no one with even a minimally musical ear was involved. So it continues. The melancholy final bars of the opera, after Bluebeard’s final gloomy words “Darkness, darkness,” make no impact. Rather, Judith stares at Bluebeard’s body, lost in thought. But about what need she think? Why does she not just clean her gun, fill out the paperwork, and reflect on a hard day at the office? Other divergences between music and production are evident even in the carefully edited film version on the Bavarian State Opera website.

To be fair, the production does have (in addition to the fine orchestral playing) two offsetting virtues. One is a dramatically gripping set design by Mitchell and Alex Eales. Small rooms open up one by one, ever lower across the stage, closing successively behind Judith as she descends to the lowest reaches of Bluebeard’s castle. The motif of small rectangles recalls the celebrated premiere production of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, which Mitchell directed.

The second virtue is the singing of two accomplished Swedes: bass/baritone John Lundgren and soprano Nine Stemme. Both sing with satisfying precision, power and elegance—and in passable, if hardly idiomatic, Hungarian. To be sure, almost all singers sound slightly uncomfortable in these roles: few basses with voices rich, deep and dark enough to convey Bluebeard’s lonely melancholy can also reach Bartók’s high notes, while few mezzo-sopranos with the power to project over Bartók’s large orchestra also convey Judith’s youth and hit (at least briefly) a high C. Lundgren was more of a bass-baritone: comfortable at the top, heroically beautiful in the middle, but rarely gloomy. Stemme, today one of the world’s leading Wagnerian dramatic sopranos, has a heavier voice with which she hardly projects innocence, though this was perhaps appropriate to the production’s reinterpretation. Overall, one is unlikely to hear this opera sung better today.

Andrew Moravcsik

Béla Bartók: Concerto for Orchestra. Bluebeard’s Castle

Nina Stemme: Judith; John Lundgren: Bluebeard. Oksana Lyniv, Conductor. Katie Mitchell, Stage Director.