Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bluebeard's Castle: Doing My Homework

My initial excitement for Bluebeard's Castle with the NYPhil was based on knowledge of the work's reputation alone, but over the past fortnight or so, I worked to change that.  I started with the two recordings available through my university library.  Because the opera gods smiled on me, one of these featured Christa Ludwig (excerpt here,) and the other featured Anne Sofie von Otter (inexplicably, that CD seems to be $50.00, but you can get the MP3 for $7.99; excerpt here.)  Not the least of the reasons this pairing proved a fabulous introduction was that these mezzos presented wildly different interpretations (of course, Istvan Kertész and Walter Berry on the first recording, and Bernard Haitink and John Tomlinson on the second, are hardly chopped liver... but it's all about the mezzos for me.  Especially these two.)  Anyway: Christa Ludwig was a gorgeously warm Judith, overflowing with tenderness, her voice radiant with love and the need for love.  Her performance was complemented by Walter Berry's clearly suffering Bluebeard, who wanted Judith as a person, not a trophy.  Their tragedy, then, was that of two people who loved each other and couldn't find ways to communicate everything that needed to be said.  That was heartbreaking; the Von Otter/Tomlinson recording was deeply unsettling.  Von Otter's Judith was (I thought) afraid from the beginning, but also fiercely proud.  I could almost see the defiant tilt of her head, and she demanded Bluebeard's trust as her right.  This was a battle of wills with Tomlinson's outwardly immovable Bluebeard... which neither won.

My brain seething, then, with confused thoughts about romanticism, modernism, and gender, I turned to scholarly articles.  I have discovered a lack of consensus (somehow unsurprising.)  I have, however, discovered a number of other things as well!  This very cool collection of essays includes one on "Bluebeard, Hero of Modernity" which places Bartók's opera in the context of lots (and lots and lots) of modernist anxiety about how to (re)define gender roles and public and private relations between men and women.  In the same collection, there's a musicological article which taught me the word isomorphic, and about why the chords of F# and C sound so creepy together, and about the diabolus in musica (ooooh.)  Also interesting to me were the connections between Bartók and the author of the play/libretto for Bluebeard's Castle, Béla Balázs.  The men shared interests in both Hungarian folk music, and in symbolist drama like that of Maurice Maeterlinck, of Pelléas et Mélisande and Ariane et Barbe-Bleue fame. A chapter in a book by a psychotherapist sees the work as depicting "a failure to cross a threshold into a full conjoined intersubjectivity." Er, yes?  More interestingly to me, the author noted musical cross-references to earlier works which Bartók had dedicated to earlier loves (he dedicated Bluebeard's Castle to his wife... no comment.)  Carl Leafstedt, in The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, links the work (Bartók's only opera) to his other stage works as a "portrait of [modernist] loneliness"; meanwhile, Judit (!) Frigyesi, in this book, analyzes the influences of peasant and Gypsy music (even though he wouldn't admit it!) on Bartók's musical language.  I've been having fun--can you tell?  I still have more questions than answers, though.  Hopefully I haven't bored you all to tears, Gentle Readers; tomorrow comes the more interesting post on what the NYPhil, Gabor Bretz, and Michelle DeYoung made of it all, and what I made of them.  In the meantime, here's conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen talking about Bartók.


  1. Don't ever apologize for nerding out! I love this post.

    A couple of things to add... In the tv doc-series on the classical music of the twentieth century now available on DVD, Leaving Home, Simon Rattle argues (with a very straight face) that the Bluebeard is Bartok's alter-ego in that opera and that his violent reaction is understandable given that Judit's curiosity "is akin to emotional rape" (of him!). I rewound, heard it again, rewound, heard it again, but yes: that's what he was saying. So. Picture me stunned at the inventiveness of the male sex.
    [the comment continues in part II below...]

  2. Elsewhere, Offenbach's version of the tale of Bluebeard is actually a comedy. I've only heard one song from it (in von Otter-Minkowski Offenbach CD) and the whole work is rarely recorded and performed, but at least one complete rendition exists: http://amzn.to/gCXC8S

    Also: Margaret Atwood has a short story called Buebeard's Egg, which I still have to read

  3. @DTO Thanks! :) Believe it or not, Rattle is echoing a number of articles reading Bluebeard as the composer's alter ego, and, yes, even a number who blame Judith. If only she'd be satisfied after Door 5, but noooo, she just has to pry. I read the phrase "womanly curiosity" more than once. AND--forgive me a mini-rant--there's something very odd in what is called "a conversation with the conductor" in the booklet for the Ludwig/Berry recording.

    The interviewer asks what seemed to me leading questions. Kertesz was actually v. interesting; offered an absorbing analysis of the piece and then humbly stated that his was only one approach, intended to provoke questions rather than set itself up as "the" answer. But early on in the interview, as the suggestion is made that Judith distrusts Bluebeard from the beginning... " 'That's not fair!' interrupts Christa Ludwig. 'She's heard the rumors, but she comes anyway, because she loves him...' " But here, in the printed version, if not in the room at the time, Ludwig's interjection is ended. She's not quoted again. Without that inclusion, I wouldn't have thought there was anyone else in the room. Picture my incredulous indignation!

    I came across mentions of the Offenbach in the reading, but have never heard it, and I didn't know of the Atwood story. More for the reading list!

  4. Sigh. Only in the fantasy-land of the menductors can the story of the Bluebeard be about an overly sensitive man...


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