“Bluebeard’s Castle” holds a special place among the oeuvre of Béla Bartók, as it is his only opera.
The work, which premiered on May 24, 1918, was actually composed in 1911 and modified a year later. A new ending was added in 1917. The premiere took place at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest and is unique in that it only features two singing characters overall.
The work, which was penned by Béla Baláz, was conceived initially for Zoltán Kodály. Eventually, Bartók wound up with the libretto and submitted it to the Ferenc Erkel Prize competition. It didn’t win the competition and Bartók’s submission of the work to another festival was no more successful.
The work then made its way around the world and remains a popular work in the standard repertoire. Due to its short length, it is often paired with other works.
Short Plot Summary
Bluebeard and his new bride Judith appear at his castle in pure darkness. Judith asks that doors be opened to provide light but Bluebeard asks her to avoid making any questions. She insists and he relents. The first door is a torture chamber. The second room is a storehouse of weapons and the third features riches. In the fourth, they find a garden and behind the fifth is the window to Bluebeard’s vast kingdom.
The place is sunlit, but the blood has damaged all the goods found before. Bluebeard asks Judith to stop as the castle cannot get any brighter but she insists. When the sixth door is opened, it casts a shadow over the castle. He asks that the final door not be opened, but she accuses him of murdering his other wives. He hands over the final key where Judith finds his three other wives alive and dressed in crowns and jewelry. He praises his wives and Judith as his fourth wife and she realizes her mistake. She is swept behind the seventh door alongside the other wives, the door closing behind them. Bluebeard is left alone in the dark.
Watch and Listen
Here is a film version of the opera starring Elizabeth Lawrence as Judith and Robert Lloyd as Bluebeard.