Encountering Bartók’s Sole Opera for the First Time

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel's Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

Charles Dutoit conducting Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé last February at the Royal Festival Hall.

John Evans is the former editor of Classic FM magazine and launch editor of classical music website, sinfinimusic.com. He is a conservatoire-trained pianist who became hooked on Bartók the second he heard the composer’s piano concertos. Here, John writes about a work by the Hungarian composer that he has never encountered before…

It may only be an hour long, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle contains some of the darkest and most passionate music ever composed. It skirts the edges of tonality, seducing you one moment, straining your nerves the next – just as the Duke torments Judith, his infatuated but fatally curious young bride who insists on seeing behind his seven, barred doors.

The work’s composer, Béla Bartók (1881–1945), knew it was this tension, this tug of war between light and darkness that would draw his audience like moths to the flame, as it still does to this day.

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a thriller worthy of Hitchcock; its score the equal of anything composed by that director’s composer-of-choice, Bernard Herrmann. No – superior, since Bartók composed Duke Bluebeard’s Castle half a century before Herrmann penned his music for Psycho. In 1911, in fact: the year the great Hollywood composer was born.

To ponder any musical connection between the two composers one single word more would be to take fantasy to the level of Duke Bluebeard’s macabre castle itself. However, surrender your imagination to Bartók’s sinister opera and you’ll feel you’ve witnessed enough shower scenes to last a lifetime.

For the best of the many best bits (come on – we’re at the movies after all) in the opera, cut straight to the fifth of the Duke’s locked doors. Only one word describes Bartók’s score at this point: epic. Hollywood is born right here in the composer’s vivid recreation of the Duke’s vast, sun-soaked estates. Judith can only gaze in astonishment. Like Norman Bates, Bluebeard has her in the palm of his hand…

It follows the horrors revealed at the outset of the drama by doors one (a torture chamber) and two (the Duke’s armoury). It’s only with door three and Bluebeard’s treasure, depicted by the gentle twinkling of a celesta as the light dances upon it, that we dare imagine this story might, after all, have a happy ending. Stabbing, discordant flutes tell us otherwise: the gems are dripping with blood.

Surely, the sweet and fragrant garden, revealed by door four, will herald an end to Judith’s torment? The music is lush and rhapsodic, but with each passing second, it grows darker and more angular as blood stains the flowers and with it, the young wife’s hopes for a happy outcome.

We’ve already peered behind the fifth door, but now shiver to the chilling slides in the basses that accompany the opening of the sixth. They give way to some of the most eerily beautiful music you’ll ever hear as once again, poor, tragic Judith attempts to make sense of the room’s secrets – in this case, the ‘mysterious water’ (a lake of tears) here depicted by the harp’s gentle glissandi.

For unbridled Hitchcockian terror, however, you must wait until the end of the work and the seventh, barred door. The tension builds unbearably as Judith accepts her fate and follows, head bowed, the beam of moonlight to her own ‘fatal attraction’. It’s not a happy ending. Bartók’s music may have anticipated the great film scores, but Duke Bluebeard’s Castle would never make it in Tinseltown.

Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White in Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January 2015 at 7.30pm.


About Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

Acknowledged as one of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) enjoys an international reputation for bringing audiences worldwide first-class performances and the highest possible standards of music-making across a diverse range of musical repertoire. This was the vision of the Orchestra’s flamboyant founder Sir Thomas Beecham, whose legacy is maintained today as the Orchestra thrives under the exceptional direction of its new Artistic Director and Principal Conductor, Maestro Charles Dutoit.
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