Bartók’s Bluebeard

After dim sum on Sunday, Ruoxi and I left behind the human sea that was Chinatown (there was a Chinese New Year parade ongoing) for the relative quiet of Lincoln Center. We had purchased tickets for a concert by the Budapest Festival Orchestra.

The program included two symphonic pieces by Strauss: Till Eulenspiegel – symphonic poem, Op.28 (00:14) and The Knight of the Rose – First Waltz Sequences (00:10), followed by Bartók’s opera, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle.

The symphonic pieces were enjoyable, but Ruoxi and I were blown away by the concert performance of the opera. The bass, László Polgár, had a deliciously deep voice that just reverberated across the stage and sent shivers down my spine. The mezzo soprano on the other hand, was a tad disappointing as the orchestra completely drowned out her voice at certain sections (especially when I compare her against Susan Graham in Iphigénie en Tauride, the first opera I saw – she completely dominated the stage, and no one, not the bass, nor the orchestra, could match the power of her voice… ok, I suppose that’s not exactly a fair comparison, but unfortunately, by virtue of being the first, Graham’s my base standard…).

But it was the music that made it a magical performance. I don’t think I’ve quite ever felt music so completely set the scene, tone, and mood of the scene before. It was a truly beautiful experience.

Wikipedia’s succinct dissection of the score:

The most salient characteristic of the music from Bluebeard’s Castle is the importance of the minor second, an interval whose dissonance is used repeatedly in both slow and fast passages to evoke aching sadness/disquiet or danger/shock respectively. The minor second is referred to as the ‘blood’ motif, for it is used whenever Judith notices blood in the castle. Overall the music is not atonal, although it is often polytonal, with more than one key center operating simultaneously (e.g. the leadup to the climactic opening of the fifth door). However, there are some passages (for example, door 3) where the music is tonal and mostly consonant. Many critics have found an overall key plan, as you would find in a tonal piece of music. The opera starts in a mode of F#, modulating towards C in the middle of the piece (tonally, the greatest possible distance from F#), before returning to F# towards the end. The text and setting at these points has suggested to some that the F#-C dichotomy represents darkness/light.

The vocal parts are very challenging due to the highly chromatic and speech-rhythm-inflected style that Bartók uses. For non-native speakers, the Hungarian-language libretto can also be difficult to master. These reasons, coupled with the static effect of the stage action, combine to make staged performances of the opera a comparative rarity; it more often appears in concert form.

To support the psychological undertones, Bartok calls for a large orchestra.

For an excellent, in-depth, and complete analysis of the opera, go to: Inside Bluebeard’s Castle: Music and Drama in Bela Bartok’s Opera (ebook).


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