Bartók: Bluebeard’s castleBartók: Bluebeard’s castleReview of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s castle. It is a tradition at the Miskolc Opera Festival that Béla Bartók’s only opera is performed every year, always in a different stage-direction. Last year’s festival was an exception, but this year the work was presented again. The most significant Hungarian opera was now performed by the Hungarian Opera, Cluj, and directed by Miklós Szinetár, who was also the director of the film version of the opera in 1981, and the stage-director of the performance at the Hungarian State Opera House in 2006. (In the second half of the evening The wooden prince was presented, too, which is not discussed in this article.)

The basic conception of the present stage-direction is a reconstruction: the re-direction of the first performance of 1918, as far as possible. In this work theatre historian Zsuzsa Szebeni and visual artist Gyula Lőrincz had an important role: they directed the reconstruction of the historic costumes and settings.    

The production was staged by Miklós Bánffy’s (1873-1950) set design models (about whose life Miklós Szinetár made a three-part TV series earlier). Miklós Bánffy was a true polyhistor: a writer, a politician, a set and costume designer, and also the intendant of the Hungarian Royal Opera House between 1912 and 1918. He designed the settings and the costumes of the premiere of Bluebeard’s castle, but also played a major role in performing the opera at all. Since its music was novel, which made it very difficult to present, the orchestra also protested, and a foreign conductor was invited in the end: the Italian Egisto Tango, who was a committed devotee of Bartók’s music. The premiere was received by the audience and the critics as they usually receive a premiere of a contemporary work: some were enthusiastic, but most of them were disapproving and uncomprehending. In the year of the premiere the opera only had six more performances (the singers were Oszkár Kálmán and Olga Haselbeck, the stage-director was Dezső Zádor). Two decades passed until the next staging; in 1936 the opera was already a wild success in the stage-direction of Kálmán Nádasdy, with the settings of Gusztáv Oláh, and with Mihály Székely and Ella Némethy singing.   

Bartók: Bluebeard’s castleBartók: Bluebeard’s castleThis reconstructed stage-setting of the present performance is quite simple. We are in a huge hall of the castle reminding us of a rock cave, with gloomy, cold, austere walls without windows. On the left and on the right there are staircases leading up, with gothic doors in the walls aside: the first three are on the left, the second three are on the right, while the seventh is in the middle, downstairs. We cannot see behind the doors (of course, Bartók’s music describes these realms hidden by the secret chambers very picturesquely).

Upstairs, in the middle there is another huge door, at which we could see the black silhouettes of Bluebeard and Judit appearing at the beginning of the opera. (Before that we could also hear the prologue of the Bard, which is often omitted.) However, the original stage-setting was completed by Miklós Szinetár: at the front, a bit to the right from the middle of the stage there is a desk (probably to emphasize Bluebeard’s intellectual nature), and on the left - as an unambiguous necessity of a work anatomizing the relationship of man and woman - a couche.

The dark walls were in sharp contrast with the colourful costumes: Judit’s and Bluebeard’s brightly coloured - golden, purple and red - clothes. 

The creators of the 1918 production intended to give a prominent role to the play of the stage lights, too, which - considering the fact, that the premiere was almost a hundred years ago - must have been a noteworthy, novel effort. The idea was, that from each door there would have been a bar of light projected on the floor of the castle hall, once fading, then getting brighter, complementing each other gradually and forming a rainbow consisting of more and more elements. With the lighting technique of those days it probably only remained a plan, because even today it is not easy to put these effects into practice. Anyway, the lighting of the doors in the present performance pictured the original intention quite well. The torture chamber was red, the chamber of the weapons was yellow-red, the treasure chamber was gold, and the flower garden was bathing in a blue-green light. According to the libretto, in the great scene after the opening of the fifth door, the light is streaming in. In Miklós Szinetár’s stage-direction the lights in the auditorium also went on, the whole theatre became bright, which, in my opinion, did not really have the desired effect: the lit auditorium rather distracted our attention from the stage. The sixth door hiding the lake of tears was darker (’…as though a shadow were passing over…’ - says the libretto). Then, from the flooding beam of the ’silvery moonshine’, the ’former wives’ stepped in, then retreated wearing veils and crowns - now together with Judit. 

Besides the already mentioned accessories of the original stage-setting (desk, couche, lamplights) stage-director Miklós Szinetár used even another modern theatrical effect: background projection, which was first seen after the opening of the fifth door. In the pictures first we could see the auditorium of the Hungarian Opera, Cluj, then paintings (landscapes) from Bartók’s time and a photo of the Bánffy Palace. The flashing of these pictures were not particularly impressive, and did not serve the interpretation of the story, either; I think, the purpose of the projection was rather a salute to the era and - above all - Miklós Bánffy. 

Bartók: Bluebeard’s castleBartók: Bluebeard’s castleThere could have been a further way of reconstruction: trying to reproduce the gestures of the singers of that era, but the stage-director did not attempt to do that. He was right: first, we have an incomplete knowledge about it, second, on the basis of our existing knowledge (descriptions, recollections, photos, film excerpts) we can be pretty sure, that today those theatrical gestures would rather look mannered and funny. In this respect Miklós Szinetár’s stage-direction was modern: by emphasizing acting and by bringing the relationship between man and woman into relief, he focused on the psychological background of this relationship (which emphasis, in the case of Bluebeard’s castle, is quite evident for the audience of today, of course). Within that, he brought the conflict between man and woman to the fore. For me the most characteristic moment was, when Judit and the prince were leaning on each end of the table, with their eyes fixed on each other, and the curious woman - trying to get into the soul of the lonely Bluebeard - hit the table with her hand angrily and impatiently… Most of the time it was the prince, who was dominant, but, for example, in the scene before the opening of the seventh door it was him who „lost’: after the hysterical cry of Judit he desperately collapsed.

Of the two singers from Cluj-Napoca, János Szilágyi in the role of Bluebeard was more convincing, at least as far as pure voice is concerned. After the opening of the fifth door, in the monumental scene (’Now behold my spacious kingdom…’) his voice may not have soared as it should have, but apart from that, his characteristic, expressive baritone voice could assert itself even during the dense orchestral parts. The same cannot be said about Mária Molnár playing the role of Judit, whose otherwise nice voice was often lost in the auditorium, even in this small theatre. But as far as acting is concerned, both of them were genuine, interpreting the inner struggle of the two characters, their feelings towards each other and their conflicts intensively, in a nuanced way and with empathy. 

Bartók: Bluebeard’s castleBartók: Bluebeard’s castleThe Miskolc Symphony Orchestra knows the piece very well, as does conductor György Selmeczi (by the way, in Cluj-Napoca he also staged Bluebeard’s castle, which performance was part of the program of the Miskolc Opera Festival some years ago). Accordingly, the orchestra, conducted by him with confidence, played routinly, accurately, but I missed that inspiration from their performance, which is the feature of a really outstanding performance. I must add: the orchestral pit of the Miskolc National Theatre is quite small for the orchestra of Bartók’s opera, which makes it more difficult to concentrate, and some instruments had to be placed to the side, outside of the pit, which did not serve the creation of a really unified sound, either.

Overall, we saw a fine, though not outstanding performance, which, on the other hand, with regard to the reconstruction, was a unique production, where the traditional costumes and stage-settings were combined moderately with certain elements of a modern opera performance. Thus, my general impression is positive, this production has deservedly become a chapter in the long history of Bluebeard’s castle performances at the Miskolc Opera Festival.


Balázs Csák



13 June, 2015, Miskolc National Theatre, Grand Theatre

Miskolc Opera Festival


Béla Bartók:


Opera in one act

Performed by the Hungarian Opera, Cluj

Libretto: Béla Balázs

Set and costume designer: Count Miklós Bánffy (1918)
Director of the reconstruction of costumes: Zsuzsa Szebeni
Director of the reconstruction of settings: Gyula Lőrincz

Conducted by: György Selmeczi
Directed by: Miklós Szinetár



Bluebeard - János Szilágyi
Judit - Mária Molnár
Bard (Prologue) - Áron Dimény

Miskolc Symphony Orchestra