Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is a one-act Hungarian opera saturated in symbolism. Composed by Béla Bartók and written by poet Béla Balázs, the opera has just two singing parts; the titular Bluebeard, played by brilliantly talented bass John Relyea, and Bluebeard’s latest wife Judith, played by mezzo-Soprano Allison Cook*, who has just eloped with him to his castle.

A hour-long, semi-staged treat for opera lovers and newbies alike

Finding the castle cold, dark and with numerous secret rooms, Judith beseeches her new husband to unlock his doors with feminine wiles and an open heart. By seductively crawling upon their long dining table, Judith skillfully pries her way into Bluebeard's heart, though seemingly barred by tragedy and an unforgivable past, ignoring her cruel husband's earth-shaking protestations.

Though outsized by Bluebeard, Judith insists on opening each door, no matter what horrific truth lay behind each one. Each door opened reveals more of Bluebeard’s vast kingdom – a torture chamber, an armoury and a blossoming garden too – and the test of Judith’s love intensifies as she uncovers realities of Bluebeard’s close relationship with war, violence and corruption.

Though more sickened with each revelation, she staggers on in her search for Bluebeard's truth and he softens through her efforts. In offering up her own heart unconditionally, she finds an entry point into his.

As well as being an incredible story, Duke Bluebeard’s Castle is supported by a sensational composition. Led by Russian-American conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, the orchestra expertly draws us into a raw immersive experience, with the rising tension of the woodwind section and the anxiety inducing palpitations of drums making me wish I had sat closer to the pit to better feel the vibrations on my skin.

Performed in the original Hungarian, translations projected above the stage ensure our comprehension. The opera is only semi-staged but the pared-down set design and thoughtfully added prop pieces combined with a compelling musical score make it easy to stay absorbed in the action.

*On the night, Allison Cook was taken ill but her replacement Jennifer Johnston did a flawless job with just a two hour rehearsal, supported by staff director Crispin Lord who walked the actions with real intensity. Though it was both a little jarring and disappointing having the role of Judith split into voice and action, knowing that a lot of time had clearly gone into staging and rehearsal, by suspending disbelief, the fable-like message of the piece flowed unimpeded.

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Reviews by Laura Tucker

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The Blurb

As Judith unlocks room after room in the castle of her new husband, Duke Bluebeard, we follow her deeper and deeper into the recesses of his troubled imagination.

Her descent takes us through a torture chamber, an armoury, a treasury and a garden, until we find a mysterious seventh chamber which holds her fate.

Bartok’s opera is as taut and gripping as a thriller, but it resists easy categorisation. At once a study of an obsessive, violent man and an allegory of the battle of the sexes, Bluebeard’s Castle is a powerful story that incites thought as well as suspense.

Presented as a semi-staged concert performance by two internationally acclaimed performers in an hour of gripping psychodrama. This production is a two-hander, with award-winning Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw singing Judith and Canadian baritone John Relyea, one of today’s finest basses, as Bluebeard. It is conducted by Martyn Brabbins, ENO’s Director of Music.

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