"Bela Bartok's masterful one-act nacht-oper, based on the original Barbe-Bleue story by Charles Perrault (1697), composed between February and September 1911 and finally performed at the Royal Opera House in Budapest 24 May 1918 with a substantially revised finale, was his only opera. There were further alterations of the vocal score in 1921 and still further adjustments to the score's vocal declamation during the 1930s. It represents, in its electric novelty, a forceful new creation in Hungarian opera: avante-garde in comparison to Bartok's contemporaries Puccini and Strauss, heavily influenced by Debussy, the symbolist drama features a superb libretto by Bela Balazs that exposes the blood-soaked, brooding essence of an aesthete and murderer, rumored to have killed his previous young wives in grisly fashion.
Their bodies as yet undiscovered, new wife Judith is determined to enter the castle's seven sealed doors, forbidden her by Bluebeard, in an attempt to resolve her doubts and solve the mystery. The dark-enshrouded castle, its damp walls weeping moisture like tears of sorrow in the gloom, broods like Bluebeard's soul, resolved to guard his secrets. Judith, seeking the solace of more light, asks Bluebeard why the doors are bolted. When he responds that no one is to see what lies behind them, she pounds on the first of the seven bolted doors, a pitiable sigh echoing through the castle. Judith asks for the key and more sighs pierce the darkness as she turns the lock. One-by-one, the hidden secrets of the forbidden doors are revealed.
Kolos Kovats is a Byronic Bluebeard, singing and acting the role with taste and style. The beautiful Sylvia Sass, dressed with ethereal delicacy in diaphanous flowing robes, wanders the castle fluttering her silk covered arms with bat-like grace. She is a vision of nobility, struggling for illumination where none is available without terrible cost. Her voice is lovely, with a dollop of mournful, fading strength as more of the dread castle is revealed. This is a studio production, the music and voices are well matched. Sir Georg Solti conducts the London Philharmonic with a blend of mystery and power. The sets, given the static nature of this 56 minute opera, are important to the opera's success and they are effective. The 1981 film is clear, the sound in PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 is full. This is a short disc, however, lasting only 56 minutes and with no extras. Some extras or even another short opera should have been added. This rarely performed opera makes us take what we can get, unfortunately.
A strong, brooding performance coupled with the opera's rarity makes for a strong recommendation.
Masterpiece first time on DVD
Giedrius Alkauskas | Nottingham, UK | 05/14/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Lovers of classical music usually have plenty of recordings on their shelves. Some are played once a week, some-couples of times a year, yet almost everyone has a dozen of pieces, which are very special in all meanings: intimate and extremely dear. "Kekszakalu Herzeg Vara" is the one for me. No need to describe the music of this masterpiece. The current DVD is a studio recording of this opera. Singer's voices and orchestra are recorded separately. Though it is not a movie as well: the low budget of this production is apparent, and some cinematographic scenes are not very satisfactory in accomplishment: for example, Bluebeard is transparent, while he shows Judith his Kingdom (two rolls put one over another). Yet this movie has a very strong, undescribable emotional appeal. Singers are superb, Judith is a very beautiful, strong and charismatic woman, while Bluebeard is mysterious and gloomy. The delicate subtleness of the score is completely represented by Solti's orchestra, as well as in the action and montage decisions. This opera was criticised for being static: indeed, nothing happens there. This is one of the reasons why this undeniable masterpiece was not released on DVD previously. What is this dark castle of Bluebeard's? Bela Bartok answers: it is secret, gloomy soul and heart of a man. This journey is an inner drama, and all the cast, conductor and director makes it unforgettable."
All is forgiven
A Reader from | Atlanta GA | 05/20/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Bluebeard's Castle is probably my favorite 20th century opera. This film doesn't disappoint in conception, performance, or execution. (If this film was made more recently, I'd probably have some issues regarding the production and direction, but since it was made in the late 70s/early 80s, I guess all could be forgiven in light of the stellar performances of all involved.)
I had to take one star off the rating however, because there are no additional features or documentaries included. It's just the film pure and simple with no commentaries. At $30 a pop for a performance lasting less than an hour, purchasing this film would be basically prohibitive for most of us. But since Borders was offering a 40% off coupon that week, I decided to splurge.
I'm very glad to have it. Watch it without subtitles first, just to take in the imagery and hear the vocals and orchestra without any distractions. Then watch the movie again with the subtitles and see if you don't get truly blown away at the overall spectacle. My two cents."
Mixed feelings emerge
Robert Baksa | new york state | 07/10/2008
(3 out of 5 stars)
"Bluebeard's Castle contains my favorite music by Bartok. But like many composers who really did not have a feel for opera, Bartok failed to make a stageworthy piece. It is tremendously static and film directors can come to grief trying to salvage works with similar problems. Obviously, lots of money was spent on the production but it doesn't really bring the piece to life in my opinion. Sass is a handsome woman with a naturally beautiful voice. Sad to say, she has technical problems in the higher register and the voice is not large enough to cut through the heavy orchestral textures. Kovatz is better with a fine ringing sound but he is as wooden as a tree. At least both performers are native to the language. Many big label recordings use major opera singers who cannot adequatly deal with the pronunciation of the language. There is a stunning simplicity and directness about the libretto to this opera and the english translation does not do it justice. But perhaps this is something that only a Hungarian would be sensitive to. All in all this opera is perhaps better appreciated as an aural experience letting one's own imagination fill in the visual aspect.
Because I really enjoy great singing, I tend to shy away from opera films where one cannot see the singer really singing. But in this case there is not other option. Too bad."
The Missing Music Box from Dr Caligari's Cabinet
Giordano Bruno | Wherever I am, I am. | 10/14/2008
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Mike Birman's excellent review of this rare expressionist opera, several moths old already, was responsible for my ordering it. A few nights ago I finally watched it. His judgment of the music says everything I might want to say. The cinematography is another matter.
Of course, with Georg Solti conducting, I knew I was getting a production with some miles on its chassis. I knew it had to be a re-release or else a filming that had been kept in the vaults. In fact, the performance was filmed in 1981. Hey, I remember 1981! There were no cell-phones or iPods in 1981, but people had stopped wearing animal skins in favor of clothes, and most Americans had indoor plumbing. It wasn't so long ago. Imagine my surprise then, when Bluebeard's Castle began flickering in grainy colorization on my HDTV screen, looking very much like a Fritz Lang silent from about 1925, yet with rich, realistic orchestral colors and 'immediate' singing! I quickly checked the box, to see if I'd read the wrong date. No, 1981! Aha, perhaps it was filmed in a castle in Transylvania, I thought! Everything, however, points to a television studio in Hungary.
Bluebeard is a short opera, just over an hour, with only two characters -- Bluebeard sung by Kolos Kovats and Judith sung by Sylvia Sass. Both singers look their parts, and one has plenty of opportunity to study their faces in such a filming. Kovats moves and stands - mostly stands - like Dr. Mabuse in one of those early horror films. One keeps expecting the celluloid to flicker and break, and the house lights to come on, embarrassing the neckers in the back rows. Sass is Theda Bara incarnate. The sets - dungeons and damp-rot in the vaults of the castle - are at the same time brooding and kitschy, and when the seven doors start flying open, well... if Alien II had been an opera sung in Hungarian and filmed by John Lurie and the crew from Stranger Than Paradise...
I confess, the first few minutes of this DVD I thought I'd been bamboozled. But then it caught me. Then I recognized the perhaps unintended brilliance of staging this 1911 opera in the cinematographic language closest to its spirit, to the out-of-kilter Freudian mood of decadent sensuality expressed in the music. I can't, in fact, imagine a better way to stage it. Anything more vivacious, anything less shadowy could never evoke such dream-like pre-modern anxiety. One of a kind in every way!"