Bartók’s only opera was inspired by a story by his colleague
and friend, Béla Balázs. The work was composed in 1911, but
the composer returned to it, subjecting it to many small revisions,
several times over the following years.
Bluebeard returns to his castle with his new bride, Judit. Though entranced by her new home, she finds it cold and forbidding: her love, she says, will warm and transform it. A high-pitched, piercing motif, tells us that things will probably not be so simple. She is confronted by seven locked doors, and though her husband tells her they must remain shut, her repeated avowals of love persuade him to open them. The first reveals a room full of instruments of hideous torture, the second, a monstrous armoury. The third opens onto fabulous treasures, the fourth into a light-filled, glorious garden; and the fifth, the final door that Bluebeard seems willing to open, reveals the vastness of his kingdom. The piercing motif accompanies each of these vistas, and we realise that it represents the blood that Judit perceives everywhere, even on the sunlit petals of the flowers. Still she insists, and the sixth door is opened to reveal a lake of tears. Unable now to stop, and convinced that Bluebeard has murdered his previous wives and concealed them behind the seventh and final door, she convinces him to open it. One by one, his three previous wives file out, apparently alive, yet lifeless, mute, in some way immortal, beautiful and bedecked in the finest clothes and jewels. Bluebeard sadly instructs Judit to take her place amongst them, and as the four return into the seventh room, the opera closes.
This is an early work and the musical language, less chromatic and dissonant than much of the composer’s music, is heavily influenced by Hungarian folk song. Both dramatically and musically it is a masterpiece. The composer, by way of his brilliant aural imagination, found just the right music to represent what Judit sees as she opens each door. The torture chamber will already have your flesh creeping, particularly so in this performance which features a very rare keyboard xylophone, perhaps even the very instrument for which the composer conceived the music. The most spectacular moment occurs as the fifth door is opened, when a series of fully scored parallel chords, fortissimo, evoke the immense panorama of Bluebeard’s domain. But before that we have had the warmth of the garden, and following it the icy coldness of the lake of tears – Judit clearly knows what it is before Bluebeard names it – and all evoked by perhaps the most colourful orchestration anywhere in Bartók’s output.
This is not a new performance: previously available on the Philips label, it now takes its place under license in Channel Classics’ series of recordings conducted by Iván Fischer. Long may it remain available! Others have been more spectacular, Boulez and Solti, for example, but having native Hungarian singers is huge advantage. Ildikó Komlósi is marvellous as Judit, young, impetuous and innocent, but it is the Bluebeard of Laszló Polgár that really clinches the matter. Initially one regrets that his is not a darker voice, but then it becomes clear that his psychological assumption of the role goes very much further than that. Acting with his voice he manages to convey all the pain and regret that his character feels at the seemingly inevitable outcome of the drama. And no singer I have ever heard in this marvellous work has convinced me more that Bluebeard truly loves his Judit, in spite of everything that has passed and is to come.
A spoken introduction, in verse, sets the scene. The first notes of the music establish the atmosphere of the work, but nonetheless it is crucial that this introduction be performed, and in the original language. In this case the speaker is Iván Fischer, as successful at finding the right tone as he is on the podium with the fabulous Budapest Festival Orchestra. The recording is outstandingly rich and lifelike, and the booklet contains the full Hungarian text with English translation, though frustratingly not all the stage directions are translated. There is also a short introduction by the conductor and an excellent essay by Kenneth Chalmers, both in English and in French.
Accepted wisdom says that the Decca recording from 1965, with Walter Berry and Christa Ludwig, conducted by István Kertész, is the classic to have and to hold. I confess to never having heard this reading, but I am very attached to Solti, also on Decca, and to an all-Hungarian performance from 1956 on Hungaroton conducted by János Ferencsik. But I think the very particular view of Bluebeard as embodied in this marvellous performance makes it my preferred choice now.