BARTOK: Bluebeard’s Castle, Op. 11 – Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau – Bluebeard/ Irmgard Seefried – Judith/ Swiss Festival Orch./ Rafael Kubelik – Audite 95.626, 60:41 [Distr. by Naxos] (6/2/14) ****:
On the occasion of Rafael Kubelík’s 100th birthday, Audite presents this previously unreleased, live recording of his memorable concert performance at a 1962 summer festival of Béla Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle. With a driven sense for Bartók’s orchestral riches and his musical drama in chiaroscuro, Kubelík reveals (15 August 1962) the emotional abysses of this gloomy psychological thriller and moulds the seven chambers symbolizing Bluebeard’s innermost secrets with expressive psychological gestures. Soloists Irmgard Seefried and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who also sang the role of Bluebeard in studio recordings with Ferenc Fricsay and Wolfgang Sawallisch, convincingly interpret the inner tragedy of the unviable relationship between Judith and Bluebeard and the estrangement of the sexes. “Lucerne has managed to secure the best, the ideal interpreters for these roles,” the Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented. “Both singers admirably and thrillingly sustained the emotional high tension, intensifying it more and more.”
Bartok began work on Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911, and he would revise the score in 1912 and 1918. The idea of “Bluebeard” can be found in Perrault’s Mother Goose tales; but it was the Paul Dukas Ariane et Barbe-bleu (1907) that impressed the young Bartok, so he took an unused libretto by Bala Balazs meant for Zoltan Kodaly and compressed the characters to Bluebeard and Judith, having deleted any appearance of the dead wives. The old Bluebeard brings his new bride to his imposing castle, a dark abode with no windows and seven doors. Judith proclaims that sunlight and joy will permeate their home, but Bluebeard avows this cannot be. Having been granted the keys to the doors, Judith discovers the individual horrors behind each door: a torture chamber, dripping blood; an armory of bloody weapons; a treasure-room filled with bloody gems; a perfumed garden whose soil is soaked in blood; a countryside overcast with bloody clouds; a great lake made of tears. Bluebeard tries to dissuade Judith from opening the seventh door, but she insists and beholds the fate of three former wives, each of whom came at a distinct time of day. They are not dead but stand entombed, idealized figures who supply inspiration but no material comfort. Judith will join the others behind the final door, and Bluebeard remains in darkness.
The composer’s son Peter depicts the opera an as allegory: “Bluebeard represents Man as a tragic figure: in fulfilling his nature, he must forego joy and satisfaction; he must suffer and make others suffer. Seeking truth, he is obliged to sacrifice happiness. Judith is woman as the embodiment of love. She loves Bluebeard because he is the essential Man, the unhappy seeker of uncompromising and joyless truth. She wants to redeem him, to reconcile him with life, to make him accept happiness.”
Bartok envisions his “drama” as a psychological exercise in alienation: Bluebeard’s music derives from pentatonic scales and folk idioms; Judith’s music remains chromatic and rife with romantic harmonies. They sing “to” or “at” each other for most of the opera; in duet only at the end, for a few measures. Bartok, who loves arch-forms, builds his scale from F-sharp so that it can ascend to a shattering C Major at the fifth door that reveals a fallen Nature. Judith herself sings a high C as her moment of epiphany. Then, the music descends to the darkness from which it sprang. The orchestral tissue, often in thirds, proceeds to depict the eerie glitter of Bluebeard’s possessions, with the brass and piccolos in whoops and shrieks. The harp and celesta illuminate he sodden jewels. The terror of unconfined, chthonian Nature comes in slow progressions by the large orchestra. The harp, celesta, winds and strings suggest the depth of the lake, which must be akin to Poe’s tarn from The Fall of the House of Usher.
Fischer-Dieskau and Seefried, from the outset, discourse in the manner of a hushed conspiracy. Bluebeard’s ice finds a restrained promise in Judith’s redeeming humanity, her vow to “warm this icy marble with my living body.” Judith will make the castle “glitter bright as gold,” a sign of Arcadian innocence, but the orchestra forecasts bitter annihilation. The “seven doors barred and bolted” must be thrown open, so light may enter, the miasma may be dispersed. Seefried’s shouts of “Open!” reverberate via the tympani as the beating of her nervous heart. Despite “sounds of anguish,” each of the doors successively yield to the keys Bluebeard puts into those “sweet blessed hands.” Each open door reveals the heart of darkness, the various stations of blood, and Fischer-Dieskau’s voice combines despair and ironic triumph. The beam of light from the gem-room rings with Wagner, as if Wotan reveals the sinful source of his treasure, the poisoned pearl in Steinbeck’s novel. The orchestral colors for the secret garden of Door Four invoke Holst and Brahms, but the sounds of fertility yield to the soil soaked in blood. Judith asks pertinently, “Who must bleed to feed your garden?”
If only Judith could be content at the Fifth Door, Valhalla would endure a blessed place. Judith’s willful refusal – a kind of rage that Seefried characterizes as a frenzy that will soon transform to panic – to let love become subservient to any injunction assumes the character of hubris: we might compare Judith’s will to the intrepid Antigone of Greek tragedy, obedient only to her own construct of love and duty. A “lake of silver tears” confronts her. Using her sexuality as a prod, Judith entreats Bluebeard to open the final door. Bluebeard’s constant admonition, “Ask me no questions” begins to resemble Wagner’s Lohengrin, who demands that Elsa accept him and love him as he appears to himself. The Seventh Door holds the truth of those “cruel rumors” of Bluebeard’s former loves. Now, having witnessed the fate of three of her predecessors, Judith as Persephone may glean the harvest of Hades’ kingdom; Judith as Psyche now fully comprehends the nature of her mysterious Eros. Judith shall be Queen of Night, as if Bartok were himself invoking some dark reversal of Mozart’s alchemy, now stripped of its Masonic optimism. Bartok, of course, worshipped Beethoven, and each completed one opera devoted to the theme of a love unto death. Whose vision proves to be the more true?