This spring’s production of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle was only the second mounted in the Metropolitan Opera’s history, and the first to use Béla Balász’s original Hungarian libretto. This is a peculiar omission; the opera is a magnificent work, with a richly textured score and libretto, meticulously and audaciously constructed. The one-act piece provides an exciting musical and dramatic challenge to everyone involved in the production—from the two singers (Nadja Michael and Mikhail Petrenko) who carry the entire narrative, to the set designer (Boris Kudlicka) who is tasked with representing the symbolically freighted castle of the title, to the director (Mariusz Trelinski) who has to conjure a comprehensible and emotionally compelling story from Balász’s imagistic and ambiguous libretto.
Adaptations of the Bluebeard fairy tale, like this one, have often functioned as explorations of gendered violence within a particular historical moment. Changing attitudes towards domestic abuse, for instance, can be traced through versions from Charles Perrault’s witty tale with its disdainful, misogynistic moral, to Angela Carter’s exuberant feminist fantasia, to the diffuse, systemic violence which runs through Jane Campion’s The Piano. Unusually for such adaptations, Bartók and Balász’s Bluebeard’s Castle focuses exclusively on the relationship between Bluebeard and Judith, the protagonist. Here, Judith opens forbidden doors not covertly, as in other versions, but under Bluebeard’s direct gaze. He even begs her not to, but slowly cedes one key after another into her hands. It is a narrative about power, control, threat, and passion, an exploration of a violent relationship which nevertheless remains vividly human, and insistently nuanced. Nadja Michael succeeds in portraying a Judith who loves Bluebeard and wants to bring light into his castle and his life, but who is also afraid, filled with very real dread that he has murdered his previous wives and that she will be next. Mikhail Petrenko’s Bluebeard also loves Judith, even idolizes her. But his is a love that requires control, and one which must be enacted through violence.
Each time Judith opens a door to a different part of the castle she first registers shock, then, as blood corrupts everything she sees, she becomes slowly more disturbed. Repeated dissonant motifs underscore the threat looming in each new part of the castle, while the rich high notes of Judith’s soprano teeter on the edge of a scream, her voice at once asserting her power and suggesting her vulnerability.
The Metropolitan Opera production does not shy away from representing either the violence of the text or its emotional complexity. Trelinski has said that he was inspired by the iconography of film noir—and specifically by Hitchcock’s Rebecca—in his staging of the opera, and this comes through in all aspects of the production. Judith’s gleaming turquoise gown and blonde bobbed hair make her the very image of an elegant noir heroine, while Bluebeard’s dark suit and gloves fit him equally well into the genre. A constantly shifting set of tall windows casts long dark shadows, while a series of projections used throughout the performance integrates a cinematic sensibility into the staging. At several points in the opera, a screen descends over the actors and plays a dizzying image of continually rotating staircases, reminiscent of Hitchcock’s iconic shot in Vertigo. In combination with the creaking, disembodied voice that speaks the prologue, these projections almost make the castle itself a third character in the drama.
The noir aesthetic also draws the opera away from its traditional gothic imagery and into the visual vocabulary of modern serial killer movies (a clanging metal gate, a white-tiled room with a drain in the center, a sterile, stripped-down torture chamber…). Although at times this aesthetic feels gimmicky, it brings out the seriousness of the threat facing Judith. The gothic vocabulary of Balász’s libretto is strongly coded as fantasy in a way that can distance audiences from the reality of the violence portrayed. By reshaping the iconography of the piece, Trelinski’s production breaks through this barrier, linking it with narratives of violence that, however extreme in their imagery, feel more compelling and even realistic to a contemporary audience.
At times the awe-inspiring, ever-shifting sets come close to overwhelming the performers, taking the focus away from the close, human dialogue at the heart of the opera. But the staging also builds so much tension that when Bluebeard and Judith actually touch, either affectionately, violently, or both, it can be electrifying.
Trelinski’s most audacious choice, however, is his reinterpretation of the opera’s ending. One of the major innovations in Balász's libretto is that Judith’s final horror comes not from learning that Bluebeard’s previous wives are dead (she has prepared herself for this possibility, and confronts Bluebeard with it earlier), but that they are still alive—transformed into silent, obedient wraiths locked behind the final door. As Bluebeard names her among them, Judith finds herself unable to speak and compelled to join them behind the door.
Trelinski blunts the poetic possibilities of this ending by overlaying it with the violence of a thriller. As Bluebeard buries a body dressed in Judith’s distinctive blue gown, Judith herself stands by, watching helplessly. She and the wives are implied to be truly dead, now only ghosts keeping watch over their murderer. Though this is a powerful ending, I thought the production loses something by resolving all the terrifying possibilities the opera offers—the possibility, for instance, that Bluebeard transforms his wives rather than killing them, and thereby controls them indefinitely.
The survival of the wives, implied in the libretto, undermines the clean narrative of the traditional Bluebeard story and opens it up to a variety of possibilities for what it might mean to live in a sustained situation of control. As a serial killer, Bluebeard is all too easy to hold in moral contempt, and to set apart from those who perpetrate more subtle types of control and violence within intimate relationships. But if Bluebeard were to keep his wives alive, adoringly describing each according to the individual beauty he sees in her, the opera might be forced to grapple with the possibility that love can itself be dangerous and even violent, that a character as strong-willed and passionate as Judith could be transformed under sustained compulsion.
Set against these possibilities, a murder is the easy way out. Both the audience and Judith herself expect to see dead bodies from the opera’s very beginning—previous knowledge of the story, the noir aesthetic, and insidious hints of blood all point towards murder. Judith even accuses Bluebeard of having killed his previous wives. To reveal them alive would be to leave the audience with a more unexpected and disquieting ending, one which opens up further dialogue about the meaning of intimate violence rather than cutting it off with an all-too-easy murder.
RACHEL HERZOG is a graduate of Barnard College, class of 2015.