Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle

We are not the masters of our own condition. Some things are already written & cannot be changed. Forces greater than ourselves dictate them. Bluebeard’s Castle is Béla Bartók’s only opera and it’s lack of immediate success probably contributed to his decision to abandon the form in favour of instrumental compositions. Written in 1911 it remained unperformed until 1918 when it was premiered at the Budapest Royal Opera as part of a double bill with his ballet ‘The Wooden Prince’. Both had libretti by Béla Balázs.


Béla Bartók and Béla Balázs.

Bartók who during his lifetime was better known as a concert pianist is now one of Hungary’s must celebrated composers and indeed one of the most important modern composers internationally. Born in current day Romania, Bartók was something of a child prodigy who by the age of 25 was piano professor at the Hungarian Royal Academy. Among his students was the great Hungarian conductor Sir Georg Solti. The political turmoil in central Europe in the 1930’s caused him to emigrate to America in 1940 where he stayed for the rest of his life. Part of the reason for his departure was the rising anti-Semitism in his homeland under the premiership of Miklós Horthy. Bartók had many Jewish friends, not least Balázs, whose name he refused to remove from the credits of Bluebeard’s Castle thus incurring the displeasure of the authorities.

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Nadja Michael & Mikhail Petrenko as Judith & Bluebeard from the Metropolitan Opera’s 2015 production.

Based on a folktale by Charles Perrault the opera tells of Duke Bluebeard and his new wife Judith as she enters his castle for the first time. The castle is very dark and gloomy and on seeing seven doors Judith asks Bluebeard for the keys to open them so that she can let light and love into the dark and claustrophobic interior. As she gradually opens the doors the duke’s torture chamber, armoury, treasury & gardens are revealed, all smeared with blood until eventually the fifth door opens onto the dukes vast and beautiful lands which also have blood-red clouds drifting across them. Up to this point the castle is gradually getting brighter and Bluebeard tells Judith that she has seen enough, she has got what she wanted, the last two doors must remain locked.

‘you begged for… prayed for sunlight. See how the sun hath filled my house… Child, beware, beware my castle. Careful, it will shine no longer.’

But Judith insists in demanding the keys for the last two rooms. From here the mood changes and darkens as a sense of doom and forboding descends. The sixth room! a lake of tears, tears from the sadness that lived in the castle and permeates from it’s very walls. Bluebeard warns her not to ask for the key to the seventh room but she believes it contains the bodies of his murdered previous wives.

“I have guessed your secret, Bluebeard. I can guess what you are hiding… all your former wives have suffered, suffered murder, brutal, bloody. Ah, those rumours, truthful rumours.”

The seventh room does indeed reveals Bluebeard’s previous wives. One is found in the morning, one at midday, another in the evening. All are alive and in a zombie-like state. Judith, to her horror, is added to their number in a dark mantle and a rich crown: his wife of the nighttime. She enters the seventh room, the door closes behind her and the castle is returned once again to darkness.

Bluebeard’s Castle was written a number of years after Bartók along with his friend and fellow composer Zoltán Kodály had developed an interest in Hungarian folk music in 1905. Together they travelled around the countryside recording and logging the various musical styles among small rural communities. These musical patterns made their way into this opera. Although written in 1911 the work is not particularly dissonant or ‘modernist’ in sound. Bartók in his early years was very heavily influenced by the Germanic music of Wagner and Strauss but by the time he was writing Bluebeard’s Castle his influences were more folk and archaic. Yes, there are passages that are driven by minor chords but they tend to be used to reflect the darkness and claustrophobia of the castle rather than an attempt to reflect then current musical fashions. The opening of the ‘pleasant’ doors like the treasury, the secret garden and the vista of Bluebeard’s kingdom are accompanied by beautiful tonal passages that reflect the beauty being revealed. Up to the opening of the fifth door the castle gets continuously brighter. From then on a darkening creeps over it as the almost unstoppable and tragic conclusion gradually reveals itself.

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Two illustrations of Bluebeard, on the left by Gustave Doré & on the right by Irish artist Harry Clarke.

This is an opera I have grown to love. It takes a bit of listening to but as they say in musical circles ‘it’s a grower’. It brings to mind Benjamin Britten’s ‘Owen Wingrave’ in that it has the same dark supernatural theme in the background as the events between the characters are played out. It’s also quite a demanding opera for the performers as there are only two of them (not including the three non-singing wives) and aside from  it’s being a very emotionally intense work, for Judith anyway, they are continuously on stage and performing. There is no break from the gaze or the ears of the audience. Just as well it’s not more than an hour’s duration! The length of the piece and its minimal cast makes it a great choice for smaller opera companies even though Bartók originally scored it for an enormous orchestra which included an organ accompanying  the opening of the fifth door and one of the great stand alone high C’s of opera.

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There are a number of recordings which are sung in the original Hungarian which can sound a bit odd when one is used to hearing operas sung in Italian or German. The recording I have is an English language version from 2016 on the Chandos label featuring bass John Tomlinson and mezzo soprano Sally Burgess. If one wants to see the full opera with English subtitles there is a good ‘movie’ style version on YouTube with Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Lawrence from 1988. Irish National opera are also giving three performances of Bluebeard’s Castle this autumn in conjunction with the Dublin Theatre Festival. This will feature Joshua Bloom and Paula Murrihy. I’ll certainly be at one of those.

INO Bluebeard

Details about Opera Ireland’s production are here

The Robert Lloyd & Elizabeth Lawrence ‘movie’ version is here 


Franco Alfano – Risurrezione


The curse of Turandot! No, not a plot twist in the famous Puccini opera which nobody has noticed yet but the legacy bequeath to Franco Alfano, the composer commissioned to completed the work Puccini left unfinished when he died in 1924. A number of composers were considered for the task of completing Turandot and Puccini even nominated his own candidate before he died, but the dubious honour fell to Alfano. Despite a very productive musical career that spanned over 50 years as composer and teacher which included 13 operas it is for completing Turandot that Alfano is best remembered today.

Born in Naples in 1875 and considered one of Italy’s ‘Giovane Scuola’ Alfano who was initially hoping to be a concert pianist left Italy to study in Leipzig before returning to Italy and taking up teaching posts in Bologna, Turin, Pesaro and eventually Rome. Not from a rich family and having no patron teaching was the only way Alfano could support himself as a composer.


Leo Tolstoy and an Italian edition of his last great novel Risurrezione.

This years Wexford Festival Opera continuing its tradition of reviving rarely performed works will feature a performance of Alfano’s early opera Risurrezione. Written in 1904 it is based on the novel of the same name by Leo Tolstoy.

Prince Dmitri seduces Katiusha before leaving to join the army. Katiusha who is now pregnant with his child waits for Dmitri’s return but when he does and she sees him with a prostitute she is too afraid to approach him. She falls on hard times losing her home and her baby and turns herself to a life of prostitution. Being wrongly charged with the murder of one of her clients she is sent to prison in Siberia. Dimity who discovers her predicament and his hand in it is consumed with remorse for how he has treated her and follows her to Siberia. There he uses his influence to obtains a pardon for her but she refuses his repeated offers to marry her despite the deep love she still feels for him.

Franco Alfano and Magda Olivero who sang Katiusha in a 1971 recording in Turin.


Although coming slightly after the high watermark of the verismo operas Risurrezione is written very much in that style. Verismo (realism) operas tend to be based on the real lives of ordinary people and deal with the tragedies and passions of everyday life and tend not to be known for their happy endings. Risurrezione is very much in this genre and sticks fairly close to the often distressing material in the novel though it does feature a relatively happy ending. There are much better known works in the verismo canon not least the famous double act of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci and if you like the soaring passion filled Italian singing featured in these and many of Puccini’s operas then you will certainly enjoy this. The comparison to some of Puccini’s work is quite striking at times in my opinion.

In his later works Alfano turned away from the verismo style of his earlier years when he came under the influence of the French Impressionists like Debussy and Ravel and his operas La Leggenda di Sakuntula of 1921 and Cirano de Bergerac of 1936 are in this later style.


There are a number of recordings of Risurrezione available and the one I have is a wonderfully well played and sung live recording by the Orchestre National de Montpellier from 2001 with soprano Denia Mazzola-Gavazzeni and tenor Antonio Nagore in the two main roles.

Details of the 2017 Wexford Festival Opera are here

Info on the Orchestre National de Montpellier recording is here

The Heretic Pharaoh

Philip Glass disliked much of the dissonant music that was championed by the Second Viennese School and their followers in the European avant grade. He was much more attracted to the emerging minimalist style of fellow American composers like Terry Reilly and Steve Reich and he was also heavily influenced by the repetitive and hypnotic ragas he heard while visiting his friend Ravi Shankar in India in the 1960’s. From these two influences emerged the quite tonal arpeggios which were to become the signature of Glass’ music.


Philip Glass.

Glass was not only a composer of orchestral music and to date has composed 14 operas 3 of which he has called his ‘portrait series’. These are operas about great men who have affected the course of human history. Firstly Albert Einstein in Einstein on the Beach, Mahatma Gandhi in Satyagraha and finally the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten in Akhnaten (for some reason Glass dropped the first ‘e’). Each man in turn greatly influencing the history of humanity in the areas of Science, Politics and Religion respectively.

For a modern opera Akhnaten which had its premiere in 1984 is a very accessible work and is not as starkly minimalist as some of Glass’ music. It is certainly an opera for those who may like listening to the classic repertoire and would like to dip a toe into some more modern work without being scared off by excessive percussion, atonality or dissonance. The music in much of Akhenaten is seductive and at times incredibly beautiful and lyrical. Akhnaten is musically even more accessible to those who listen to more modern popular music because it has a strong rhythmic element which tends to be absent from most of the operatic canon. If you are of the opinion that opera is long beyond its sell-by date, and there are a few who hold this opinion, then best avoid this piece altogether and stick to Nessun Dorma.


Image of Akhenaten and Nefertiti found at Amarna in 1881.

The opera opens with the funeral of Akhnaten’s father the Pharaoh Amenhotep III and the ascension to the throne of his son who then takes Nefertiti as his queen. He then stuns one and all by announcing that he is to abolish the old religion of the ancient gods of Egypt and institute a new one where there is only one God. Aten shall be the new and only deity and Akhnaten shall be his intermediary on earth. You begin to see now why Glass found the story of Akhnaten so interesting and worthy of his musical attentions. He was the first person in documented history to establish a monotheistic religion and there is a school of thought that all monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam flow from Akhnaten’s founding idea.


Akhenaten, Nefertiti and their children with the god Aten shinging down on them, and a statue of Akhenaten.

Banishing the old priesthood from their temples he installs belief in Aten as the only true religion. He then proceeds to move the royal capital from Thebes to the new city of Akhetaten (Horizon of the Aten) which he is building from scratch further north along the River Nile. This idea of the Pharaoh turning his back on the ancient gods deeply offended the priesthood and followers of the old religion who spread discontent about the new king who by now has moved with his followers to his new capital city. There he shuts himself and his family away in his new palace to worship Aten and presumably to ruminate on his new found position as intermediary between God and mere mortals.


Anthony Roth Costanzo as Akhnaten for English National Opera.

Well I suppose it wouldn’t be an opera if it didn’t end in tears and eventually his people rise against Akhenaten killing him and all his family, destroy his city and return to Thebes to reinstate the old traditions and gods. The opera ends with modern day tourists walking through the ancient ruins of Akhetaten as the ghosts of Akhnaten and his family wander amidst the sand and stones.

There are a number of intriguing things about this opera. Firstly the work is scored for an orchestra with no violins. The story goes that the Stuttgart State Opera where the premiere was meant to be held was being renovated so the Stuttgart State Theatre was used instead. The orchestra pit was too small so Glass just dropped the violins and rescored the music. Another intriguing point is that the narration is spoken in the language of the audience while most of the opera itself is sung in Egyptian, Akkadian (an ancient language from Mesopotamia) and Hebrew. Finally and very oddly for a modern opera the lead role is written for a countertenor, the highest of male voices. Akhnaten’s queen Nefertiti is cast as a mezzo soprano and in their duets she actually sings lower than him.

Akhnaten CD.jpg

There are a number of recordings of this work circulating and the one I have is one with most of the original Stuttgart cast conducted by Dennis Russell Davies with the Stuttgart Opera Orchestra in 1987. This is one of those rather off-kilter operas that you trip across now and again that turns out to be an absolute gem. The more I listen to it the more its beautiful music grows on me. I highly recommend listening to Akhnaten and indeed looking into the whole story of this utterly fascinating Pharaoh.

English National Opera presented a new production of Akhnaten earlier this year and LAOpera open their production run on November 10th this year.

Philip Glass’ website

Ancient Egypt Online

Il Tabarro & Suor Angelica

Giacomo Puccini was very impressed by the success of shorter format operas like Ruggero Leoncavello’s ‘Pagliacci’ and especially Pietro Mascagni’s ‘Cavaleria Rusticana’ and their ability to tell an emotionally charged story without the necessary complexity of plot and attention holding devices needed for a longer three or four act production. Rather in the way a short story can have all the elements of a full novel but presented in a stripped down and more immediate fashion, the one act opera could get to the emotional core of the story quickly and directly.


Giacomo Puccini.

For a composer who had become world famous for his soaring romantic tragedies like ‘La Bohème’, ‘Tosca’ & ‘Madama Butterfly’ this would certainly be a change of ‘format’ at least but one which Puccini only half heartedly embraced in so much as his intrigue with this shorter format resulted in three distinct operas which he intended to be performed together resulting in a finished work that was considerably longer than any of his other operas, and the links between the three operas were tangential at best. ‘Il Trittico’ (The Triptych) comprises the operas ‘Il Tabarro’, ‘Suor Angelica’ and ‘Gianni Schicchi’. Puccini did eventually relent somewhat and agreed to let only two of the three be performed together if necessary and today they are regularly performed as the originally intended three, as two together or indeed as one on a program with a shorter work by a different composer. Sour Angelica for example is occasionally performed with the one act opera ‘La Voix Humane’ by Francis Poulenc because of their similar emotional scenarios and tragic endings. (A riveting production of La Voix Humane was toured by Opera Theatre Company last year with a gripping performance by Soprano Kim Sheehan).

Lucio Gallo

Italian baritone Lucio Gallo as Michele in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Il Tabarro’ directed by Richard Jones.

Briefly looking at the first two of the Triptych, Il Tabarro (The Cloak) is set on a barge in Paris in 1910 and is a tale of infidelity and revenge. Giorgetta, the young wife of the barge owner Michele, is in love with Luigi who works for her husband. They grew up together and dream of getting away from the endless struggle, misery and backbreaking work of life on the water. The lovers hatch a plan to run away together and Giorgetta tells Luigi she will signal him from the barge with a candle when he is to come for her. Michele has had his suspicions about his wife’s fidelity for quite a while and after confronting Giorgetta he goes up on deck and lights his cigar. The watching Luigi sees the light and believes it to be the signal from his lover so he goes on board only to be confronted and killed by Michele who now sees what the plan was. Michele covers the body with his cloak (the cloak he used to cover his wife and their now dead child with when they were sleeping on board). When Giorgetta comes on deck he reveals the dead body of Luigi and mocking her throws his heartbroken wife onto the corpse of her lover.

Ermonela Jaho

Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho in the 2011 Royal Opera House production of ‘Suor Angelica’ directed by Richard Jones.

Could things get more dramatic and tragic? well with Puccini, yes! Sour Angelica (Sister Angelica) tells the story of a young woman who has been sent to a convent because she has had a child out of wedlock, a child she has only held and kissed once before he was taken away from her. Sister Angelica’s aunt, a rich noblewoman arrives at the convent to tell her that her younger sister is to be married and Angelica must sign over her inheritance to her since Angelica will have no need of it as she must spend the rest of her life in a convent. While signing the papers Angelica asks how her child is to which her aunt coldly answers that the child died two years ago. Angelica is seized by grief and remorse and seeing no reason to live drinks a poison so as to join her dead child only to realise that suicide is a sin and she will be parted from her child for eternity. As she dies she begs the Virgin Mary to forgive her sin. An apparition of a heavenly woman and a child appears in the convent door and the woman coaxes the child towards the dying Angelica who reaches out to him. Angelica realises she is forgiven and she will indeed be reunited with her son in death.

Tebaldi Decca

Italian Soprano Renata Tebaldi who recorded all three of ‘Il Trittico’ in 1962.

I have recordings of both these operas from 1962 featuring the sublime Renata Tebaldi in both lead female roles. By this time her voice was beginning to fade slightly and she avoids some of the high C’s which she was straining to reach. Ideally the roles of Giorgetta and Angelica, which place different demands on the voice should be sung by different singers. Georgian is a more powerful, strident and dramatic role where as Angelica requires the lighter touch of a more lyrical soprano. That said, Renata Tebaldi’s voice even in the early afterglow of its brilliance is a pleasure to listen to.

The emotional space which both female characters occupy is also vastly different. Although Il Tabarro ends with tragedy and murder, throughout the opera Giorgetta is happy and joyous for despite the claustrophobia of living on a barge with a husband she no longer loves she knows she will soon be escaping to a better life with Luigi. The emotional space for Sister Angelica is much darker, brooding and intense and is a different and more challenging role for a singer. Hers is a gradual descent into a despair which is only alleviated by the final ‘redemption’ of suicide.

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Both these operas of tragedy, death, loss and redemption were premiered in 1918 as the world emerged from the cataclysm of the Great War. A war which Puccini did not personally participate in and had no great convictions about but one in which Italy lost hundreds of thousands of her young men in the icy ravines of the Dolomites and the killing fields of Caporetto.

The music in both operas owes a lot to Claude Debussy and the French Impressionist. Puccini by this stage in his career had well mastered the art of operatic story telling and creating beautiful and memorable melodies but in these short operas Puccini wanted to be more musically adventurous. Debussy’s influence can be seen in the use of block chords and the hypnotic and calming effect of the repetition of these chords up and down the scale. This is most notable in Suor Angelica where these repeated hypnotic figures create a contemplative almost religious effect.

Also these operas don’t have the roll call of showstopping arias Puccini helped built his career on but are more about being musically adventurous and highly dramatic using a lot of conversational vocal passages that fall between recitative and aria to push the action forward. That said there are a number of stunning arias like ‘Hai ben ragione’ sung by Luigi in Il Tabarro where he describes the misery of life working on the barges and ‘Senza Mamma’ from Sour Angelica as Angelica laments for her dead child.

Dublin Opera Studio will be performing their production of these two operas at The Clasac Theatre, Clontarf on Friday 22nd July and Drogheda Arts Centre on Saturday 23rd July before taking the production to Greece in September.



Le Roi Danse

I have been studying Baroque music over the last couple of weeks under the excellent online tutelage of Prof. Craig Wright at Yale University and most of the course has understandably centred on the music of Purcell, Vivaldi, J.S. Bach and Handel. One composer we didn’t touch on among the many gems from this period was Jean Baptiste Lully.


Jean Baptiste Lully

Lully was Italian but went to France aged 14 and through various intrigues and connections caught the ear of the young Louis XIV and went on to be his court composer. Lully was a prolific and talented composer of sacred and secular music, ballet and opera and he collaborated quite often with Molière, the great French dramatist, on many pieces. Such was his influence on Louis that in 1672 he was given sole permission to produce French opera. Quite an achievement for an Italian! This was the start of the genre of French opera called ‘Tragédie Lyrique’ where performance included ballet sections, probably to accommodate Louis’ love of dancing (now thats my kind of monarch).


Le Roi Danse is a wonderful film about Lully and his relationship with Louis XIV and Molière by Belgian filmmaker Gérard Corbiau. The portrayals of the atmosphere, intrigues and characters in the court of ‘The Sun King’ are wonderful and the costumes and sets are amazing, this is a big period drama! But as you would expect the star is the music of Lully, and there is plenty of that.

The film is in French with English subtitles but is not really dialogue heavy so is pretty easy going if subtitles aren’t your thing. Its more an atmospheric and musical film which is befitting for the subject and a stunning soundtrack is available. Spectacular, fascinating and entertaining.


The Sun King