Bluebeard's Castle

From Academic Kids

A Kékszakállú herceg vára, (commonly referred to by its English name, Bluebeard's Castle) is a one-act opera by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók. The libretto was written by Béla Balázs, a poet and friend of the composer. It lasts only a little over an hour and there are only two characters: Bluebeard (Kékszakállú), and his new wife Judith (Judit); the two have just eloped and Judith is coming home to Bluebeard's castle for the first time. Bluebeard's Castle was written in 1911 and first performed in 1918 in Budapest. The libretto was originally written in Hungarian, although it is also sometimes performed in German translation.



The basic plot is loosely based on the folk tale of Bluebeard, but is given a heavily psychological reworking (some would say psychoanalytic or psychosexual, cf. Bruno Bettelheim and The Uses of Enchantment). The setting is a huge, dark hall in a castle, with seven locked doors. Judith insists that all the doors be opened, to allow light to enter into the forbidding interior, insisting further that her demands are based in her love for Bluebeard. Bluebeard refuses, saying that they are private places not to be explored by others, and asking Judith to love him but ask no questions. Judith persists, and eventually prevails over his resistance; Bluebeard begins opening the doors, one at a time; after opening each door he pleads with Judith to demand no more.

The first door opens to reveal a torture chamber, stained with blood. Repelled, but then intrigued, Judith pushes on. Behind the second door is a storehouse of weapons, and behind the third a storehouse of riches. Again, Judith is disturbed but cannot be persuaded to stop. Behind the fourth door is a secret garden of great beauty; behind the fifth, a window onto Bluebeard's vast kingdom. Although these later rooms are not as inherently repellant as the torture chamber, in each case it is revealed that blood has stained the riches, watered the garden, or otherwise defiled the contents.

Bluebeard again makes a major attempt to end the opening of the doors, but Judith refuses to be stopped after coming this far, and opens the penultimate sixth door. Significantly, this is the first room that has not been somehow stained with blood; a silent silvery lake is all that lies within, "a lake of tears," says Bluebeard, but it is unclear whose tears they are.

Finally, they come to the seventh door. Bluebeard's resistance is strong and he repeatedly asks Judith to love him and ask no questions. Judith cannot be appeased however, and eventually gives voice to her fears, that she already knows what is behind the seventh door: Bluebeard's murdered former wives. Under this accusation, Bluebeard at last opens the final door.

Behind the door are indeed Bluebeard's three former wives, but amazingly they seem to be still alive, although imprisoned. They emerge silently, and Bluebeard, overcome with emotion, prostrates himself before them and praises each in turn. Finally Bluebeard hands Judith a crown, names her as his fourth and final lady, and sorrowfully bids her farewell; she seems crushed by the weight of the crown, and her cloak; and she becomes one with the former wives behind the seventh door. It closes behind her, and the opera ends in darkness.

Performance details

Traditionally, the set is a single dark hall surrounded by the seven doors around the perimeter. As each door is opened, a stream of symbolically colored light comes forth (except in the case of the sixth door, for which the hall is actually darkened). The symbolic colors of the seven doors are as follows:

  1. (The torture chamber) Blood-red
  2. (The armory) Yellowish-red
  3. (The treasury) Golden
  4. (The garden) Blueish-green
  5. (The kingdom) Bright sunlight ???
  6. (The pool of tears) Darkness; the main hall is darkened, as if a shadow had passed over
  7. (The wives) Silvery

These lighting instructions are notably ignored in the movie (not staged) version of the opera, for which more elaborate, literal sets were constructed.

The slow orchestral introduction to the work is often preceded or overlapped with a spoken monologue posing the question "where is the stage? is it outside, or inside?" as well as offering a sort of warning to the audience to pay careful attention to the events about to unfold and "take care". However, this monologue is also frequently dropped; to some it seems heavy-handed and unnecessary, while to others it fits well with the reworked folktale atmosphere.

Another vagary of the stage direction is various ghostly sighs that seemingly emanate from the castle itself when some of the doors are opened. These have been implemented differently by different productions, sometimes clearly instrumentally, sometimes vocally, and sometimes not easily identifiable.


The most salient characteristic of the music from Bluebeard's Castle is the importance of the minor second, an interval whose dissonance is used repeatedly in both slow and fast passages to evoke aching sadness/disquiet or danger/shock respectively. Overall the music is not atonal, although it is often polytonal, with more than one key center operating simultaneously (e.g. the leadup to the climactic opening of the fifth door).

The strong uses of dissonance and polytonality make the vocal parts difficult for classically trained musicians in many of the same ways that completely atonal music is difficult.


Bartk composed the piece as an entry into a competition for young composers. However, after reviewing the composition, the judges excluded it from consideration, claiming the libretto and the music were offensive.zh:蓝胡子公爵的城堡


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