Composers Anecdotes
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle
Premiered Today in 1918

Béla Bartók

Béla Bartók

With Europe spiraling towards a massive war that would eventually devastate the continent, Béla Bartók gave voice to the general sense of anxiety and foreboding by starting work on his only opera in 1911. The libretto for the one-act Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was crafted by Béla Balázs in Hungarian, and is based on the French literary tale La Barbe bleue by Charles Perrault. The opera features only two characters, Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith. They arrive at his dark and forbidding castle with seven locked doors, and Judith insists that all the doors be opened. Judith discovers a torture chamber stained with blood behind the first door. The second door hides an armory and the third a storehouse of riches.

La Barbe bleue

La Barbe bleue

A secret garden emerges behind door number four, and Bluebeard’s vast kingdom becomes visible behind the fifth. When she opens the sixth door, “a lake of tears” casts an ominous shadow over the entire castle. Bluebeard insists that the last door must be shut forever. To no avail, Judith discovers his three former wives wearing crowns and heavy jewels. Bluebeard praises each former wife and introduced Judith as his fourth. Horrified, Judith begs him to stop, but it is too late. He dresses her in jewelry and a crown, and Judith follows the other wives through the seventh door. It closes behind her, and everything fades into utter darkness.

After the premiere in 1918

After the premiere in 1918

When Bartók submitted the work to the Hungarian Fine Arts Commission, it was flatly rejected as “unplayable.” Bartók made some modifications in 1912 and added a new ending in 1917, but the work was only premiered on 24 May 1918 at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest. With Oszkár Kálmán as the first Bluebeard and Olga Haselbeck as the first Judith, the opera was considered a success, although some critics declared it “far too dark.” When the Hungarian Soviet Republic under Béla Kun exiled the librettist Béla Balázs in 1919, Bartók refused to suppress his name on subsequent performances. In fact, Bartók withdrew the work and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle disappeared from the Budapest stage for almost 20 years.

Béla Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle

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