Bluebeard’s Castle, Béla Bartók’s only opera, based on the popular French folktale Barbe-bleue, is a typical product of the early 20th century. In pre-World War 1 Europe, where the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud and others resulted in many dark, brooding works of art, where Weltschmerz, a general feeling of melancholy and apathy, became almost a household name, the conflict between the timeless Man and Woman, meeting in his mysterious castle (an obvious metaphor for the male psyche) was as topical as thought-provoking.

Karoly Szemeredy (Bluebeard) and Victoria Karkacheva (Judith II)
© Stofleth

The psychological depth of the storyline offers a wide range of possible interpretations. The director at Opéra de Lyon, Andriy Zholdak, came forth with a wholly innovative production, in which the opera is presented from not one but two conceptual approaches. In practical terms this meant two interlocking performances of the same work, with the same male protagonist (Bluebeard), but with two different female counterparts, playing the role of Judith.

The production was bold and provocative, the orchestra played with polished finesse under their experienced conductor, Titus Engel, and the opening image of a huge mirror opening like a gate to reveal another, equally large one behind it, offered soul-searching possibilities. Then, however, instead of the purposefully archaic, theatrical and spoken prologue in Bartók’s score, Bluebeard presented a bizarre monologue (in prose) with little meaning and questionable literary value.

Karoly Szemeredy (Bluebeard) and Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Judith I)
© Stofleth

The mirrors opened to the hallway of (perhaps) a dingy hotel, with nothing but three doors on each side – awkward because of the story’s emphasis on seven doors. As the revolving stage turns, behind the doors we can see a run-down bathroom, a messy kitchen with blood splattered everywhere and a couple of bedrooms.

Bartók’s opera is an hour-long dialogue between Bluebeard and his wife, Judith, visiting his castle for the first time, without anyone else on stage. In Zholdak’s production, Bluebeard’s sister (not present in Bartók’s score and we only find out who she is from the subtitles) and three previous wives (supposedly all dead) constantly come through doors, walking quickly, touching Bluebeard every now and then and exiting, are ironically reminiscent of the famous T.S. Eliot line: “In the room the women come and go // Talking of Michelangelo”. The third wife is a cross-dresser, whose ceaseless balletic steps lose their charm very quickly. The fact that this character was also one of Bluebeard's wives is again revealed in a subtitle.

Karoly Szemeredy (Bluebeard) and Victoria Karkacheva (Judith II)
© Stofleth

Metaphors abound. Judith demands opening one door after the other and each of them uncovers a secret of Bluebeard’s life. The first door opens to the torture chamber, where kitchen utensils thrown on the floor represent the chains, swords and other cruel instruments. In the magical flower garden, behind the fourth door, there is no indication of flowers; however, while Judith is looking for them, Bluebeard violently throws two of his former wives around, while pornographic images appear on a screen. The opening of the fifth door – accompanied by one of the most memorable fortissimo C major chords in music history – shines glorious light on Bluebeard’s empire, while also showing Judith inexplicably threatening him with a knife.

The lowest point in Zholdak’s odious interpretation arrives with the opening of the sixth door, in most performances a devastatingly sad Lake of Tears. As the stage slowly turns, the audience observes a gay sex scene in the next room, culminating in one male mixing the other’s excrement with champagne and smearing it over his partner’s naked body. When the three wives from the past are mentioned at the opening of the last door, Judith stares at the gay couple, by then with their throats cut. Bluebeard has slayed the three wives, with blood was everywhere. Judith II appears through the large mirror... at which point the opera begins again.

Victoria Karkacheva (Judith II), Karoly Szemeredy (Bluebeard) and Ève-Maud Hubeaux (Judith I)
© Stofleth

Having two mezzos singing the same role offers, as if being in an odd competition, is an unfortunate juxtaposition. Both Ève-Maud Hubeaux and Victoria Karkacheva delivered excellent performances, although the latter possesses a warmer and more versatile voice and her Hungarian diction was also better. Hungarian bass Károly Szemerédy had to sing the role twice and valiantly maintained concentration under these extreme circumstances. His voice is powerful and can sound warm; however, he sang with little dynamic contrast and his acting left much to be desired.

Part 2 used video references from Part 1 with some consistency, making the concept of two independent productions redundant. It was less brutal, less in-your-face than the first, but offered few innovative ideas to make up for the (welcome) loss of perversion, drugs, soulless sex and murder so evident earlier.

This performance was reviewed from the Opéra de Lyon video stream

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