Sinister, enigmatic, and yet so simple: such is the story of Béla Bartók’s one-act 1911 opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. A young woman enters her new husband’s home – a huge dark castle with seven locked doors. Despite her husband’s protestations, she insists that all the doors be opened, at first to allow light into the gloomy interior, and then out of insatiable curiosity. What awaits her is a series of gruesome, disturbing, perplexing sights – among them a blood-stained torture chamber and a lake of tears.
What does it all mean? There’s an essay question, if ever there was one. Scholars and students alike have attempted to unpick this tangle of symbolism and inference. And that, according to Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit, is part of the fun. ‘You can open a book and look for an explanation. You can discuss the relationship between the couple at length. You can have your own interpretations.’ As for his interpretation? He chuckles, ‘this opera describes the curiosity of women in general – you know, the way they want to know things, and in the end, they are punished for that curiosity.’
Dutoit will have plenty of time to ponder the issue this January, when he conducts the 55-minute-long opera in a concert performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. As he admits, the work is filled with technical challenges, both in terms of its rhythms and balance – ‘the orchestra is huge, so one has to be careful not to cover the voice.’ But for him, the effort involved is more than worthwhile: ‘This is a heavily psychological work, which is normal for the time in which it was written – at the beginning of the Expressionist period. It’s so dramatic and powerful.’ And much of that, he points out, is down to the music, which ‘fully illustrates the text. When the fifth door opens on Bluebeard’s vast kingdom, for example, the use of extra brass instruments is very telling, and when the text mentions tears, you hear that in the music too.’ He continues: ‘The public has this idea that Bartók is difficult (to understand). This work is not. The story is very simple and well-known and the music speaks by itself. It’s one of the best pieces written by the composer.’
Maestro Charles Dutoit conducts the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall on Tuesday 27 January 2015 at 7.30pm.