Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Review: Béla Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014

October 26th, 2014

Barrie Kosky’s production of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” is the second half of a double bill of operas being performed by the Los Angeles Opera. A review of Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas”, the first half of the double bill, can be found at Review: Barrie Kosky’s Spirited “Dido and Aeneas” Arrives at Los Angeles Opera – October 25, 2014.]


Creating an opera that will enter the standard operatic repertory is an extraordinary achievement. Only a dozen or so composers have multiple entries into the frequently performed operatic canon. One can say that virtually every opera written since 1600 has been a failure. Even achieving the status of “occasionally performed” opera is an accomplishment.

No one would place Bartok’s only operatic composition, the  sombre and mysterious fairy tale opera “Bluebeard’s Castle” in the standard operatic repertory. Yet, it persists on the outskirts of the performance repertory, and no one should bet against its disappearance from the opera scene.

[Below: Béla Bartók in 1910, just before the first version of “Bluebeard’s Castle” is composed; resized image of a Helicon Hungary photograph.]

BELA BARTOK 1910 (400)

Bartók, the great ethnomusicologist of Hungarian folk-music created different versions of the work over an eight year period (approximately, though not exactly, the same period between the first and final versions of Russian composer Igor Stravinsky’s equally mysterious but less somber fairy tale opera “Le Rossignol”, which itself appeared on a double bill at the Santa Fe Opera earlier this year.)

The stage director, Barrie Kosky, is a great admirer of Bartók’s music, regarding the musical score of “Bluebeard’s Castle” as one of the five great musical works (not just operatic works) of the 20th century.

[Below: Production designer Barrie Kosky; resized image of a photograph, used by the Frankfurt Opera.]

BARRIE KOSKY_felix_drobek-truesdale(400)

What was presented at the Los Angeles Opera was a sonic experience – a symphonic composition to which was added the voices of English basso Robert Hayward and German mezzo-soprano Claudia Mahnke.

The two human voices, however, were not just disembodied musical instruments, but two operatic singers who acted out the story through highly choreographed movements, a contemporary dance, all conducted within a rotating raised circular platform onstage.

[Below: the Barrie Kosky production of Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” at Los Angeles Opera takes place on the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion stage, while the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is conducted by Steven Sloane in the orchestra pit below;  edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


The two singers acted out the familiar tale, not through the literal actions of opening doors, but through a series of movements on the circular disk that represented the physical boundaries of Bluebeard’s Castle.

[Below: Judith (Claudia Mahnke, left) implores Bluebeard (Robert Hayward, right) to give her the keys to each locked castle room; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


 As each successive door was opened, the torture chamber, the weapon storage room, the treasury, Bluebeard’s kingdom, the garden, the lake of tears, the seventh room containing his former wives representing sunrise, midday and late afternoon. As Judith understands she will represent night, the opera ends.

[Below: Judith (Claudia Mahnke, left on disk surface) comprehends the sinister aspects of the garden as Bluebeard (Robert Hayward, right) holds her with a vine; edited image, based on a Craig Mathews photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]


It has been a century since this mysterious recasting by Béla Bartók and his librettist Béla Balázs of an already mysterious fairy tale was first introduced in operatic form (its ending was rewritten for the 1918 premiere of the final version that was performed in Los Angeles).

The story’s symbolism, its consonance with Freudian psychology exploring the innate secrets of a human mind, can be analyzed and discussed, but that intellectual exercise will never lead to a consensus on what the work is about. Everyone who relates to it may do so for a different reason.

As a sonic treat and an absorbing experience lasting less than an hour, it is worth seeing and hearing.


I recommend this production to the adventuresome operagoer and for those who are attracted to symphony and dance, who think they may not like opera.

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