This year marks the centennial of the one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, written by Hungarian composer Bela Bartok in 1911, and now music lovers in Taiwan have a chance to see it performed here for the first time. Director and conductor Tseng Dau-hsiong says that the story is about relationships between men and women, but only two characters appear in the entire performance — a baritone and a mezzo-soprano — because “the code of the drama is to be found within the musical score.”
Bartok was one of the most important Eastern European composers of the 20th century, following on from Bedrich Smetana and Antonin Dvorak. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was composed in 1911, but because of World War I it was not until 1918 that it was premiered at the State Opera House in Budapest. Bartok incorporated Hungarian folk melodies in the composition, filling the music with strong ethnic color. On top of that, orchestras derive immense enjoyment from the score’s colorful orchestration, strong logic and sound reasoning, which surprisingly give musicians a sense of playing without inhibition and in unison.
The opera tells the tale of a chaste lady named Judith who marries Duke Bluebeard despite the many rumors going around about him. On her wedding night, Judith, driven by curiosity, insists on prying into the secrets of her husband’s past, using feminine seduction to persuade Bluebeard to open a series of seven doors in his castle. In the end, Judith dies in the castle, just like Bluebeard’s former wives, all of whom are haunting it as ghosts.
Tseng says that the opera’s seven doors are a metaphor for men’s secrets. A clever woman would only want to open three or four doors and leave it at that. This way the couple would get along fine or even live happily ever after, but, on the other hand, if a woman insists all the doors be opened, then “the couple would bring destruction upon themselves,” Tseng says. The finale includes a 20-second nude scene on stage. As Tseng says, “All this is specified and can be found in Bartok’s score, since the composer had already taken the plot into consideration while composing the music. It is a very classic work.”
This production of Duke Bluebeard’s Castle went through many twists and turns before it could be put on stage. The first hitch came when the original organizer, the National Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, decided to cancel the production for this year. Given that the National Theater and Concert Hall had already booked a schedule for the opera, Tseng felt it would be a pity to cancel, so he decided to put on the production himself. Much to his surprise, he did not get any funding from either the Council of Cultural Affairs or the National Culture and Arts Foundation. Consequently, Tseng had to spend the cash prize he won from the National Award for Arts this year, but that still leaves a shortfall of NT$3.6 million. As Tseng says, “The opera is rarely performed, but it is very much worth producing. After the performances, I would like to see what excuses the two arts bodies can give me for not funding the production.” The opera will be performed at the National Theater in Taipei next Friday and Saturday.
(LIBERTY TIMES, TRANSLATED BY LIN YA-TI)