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20.9.04

Bartók's Bluebeard

Bluebeard's Castle, Hungarian National OperaOne of the operas we are covering, pretty soon, in my course on Opera in the 20th Century is Béla Bartók's one-act A Kékszakállú herceg vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle). Tim Ashley's article (Bloody chambers, August 28) for The Guardian is a nice introduction to some of the problems of this troubling and fascinating work. It also has some good information about the historical background of the legend on which the opera is based:

There is no consensus even as to its origins, which have been traced to two very different sources, though both, significantly, have a serial killer at their centre. The first deals with Comar, a spurious fifth-century Breton chieftain, who murdered his wives in turn, when each found evidence of what had happened to her predecessor. The second concerns the historical figure of Gilles de Rais, who was executed by the Inquisition in Nantes in October 1440. At his trial, De Rais stood accused of "heresy, sacrilege and offences against nature". During its course, however, he confessed to the sexual assault and murder of more than 140 children, crimes so obscene as to defy belief, though historians have also questioned - and continue to question - whether the charges were fabricated and his confession forced.

Other stories about De Rais were soon in circulation, however. We know him to have been estranged from his wife, Catherine, but it was soon rumoured that he killed her when she found incriminating evidence in his torture chamber. Then there was the question of his beard, so black that in a certain light it looked blue. It was said that De Rais's actions appalled even the devil so that the latter marked him with the blue beard to distinguish him from all other men.

The rumours surrounding De Rais were doubtless the source of Charles Perrault's tale, published in 1695. Here we find the legend's essential elements: Bluebeard handing his keys to his wife with instructions that she may use all but one in his absence; her breaking of his prohibition only to discover his former wives' bodies; the bloodstained key that betrays her actions; and Bluebeard's determination to kill her as punishment for her curiosity.
Here is the text of Charles Perrault's second edition of the Conte de Barbe Bleue (in French or in English), or the original edition with morality (in French only). The opera was performed recently at the Proms (Prom 69, September 7), with Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Judith and John Tomlinson as Bluebeard, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jukka-Pekka Saraste. The program began with the British premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Orion (see Andrew Clements's appreciative review of the concert on September 9, for The Guardian). If you're in London, the Hungarian National Opera and Ballet will perform the opera (along with Bartók's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin) at Sadler's Wells, from October 4 to 6.

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