As Valentine’s Day is coming up, I remember February 14, 2008, when I saw an unstaged production of Bluebeard’s Castle by the Cleveland Orchestra with Boulez conducting and Michelle DeYoung and John Relyea as Judith and Duke Bluebeard.
Bluebeard’s Castle has been one of the most important pieces in my life and like a favorite book, something I can come back to as a reference point that will tell me something about life and where I am in it. I remember the first time I watched it, I read the program notes during intermission in addition to reading program notes online right before leaving for the concert. What can I say…sometimes, I really like to be prepared… and sometimes I really want to be surprised. In this performance, I was both. The program notes I had read all told the standard story of Bluebeard’s castle- a wide-eyed and naive newlywed named Judith marries Duke Bluebeard (by all accounts, a shady fellow) and he takes her to his cold and gloomy castle where he refuses to let her open 7 doors. The whole opera is basically her begging to open the doors, and the Duke relenting slowly. At the end, she opens the last door and yup, all the rumours are true…his former wives are all there. He then kills her and she joins them in his 7th room.
However, even though the program notes all insist his wives are dead, and Judith joins them, the libretto and the music point to a different story. I just didn’t buy him as a murderer. I also had such sympathy for his at the end…it didn’t seem fair that he should be all alone in his castle again. And I believe that Bartok and Balazs intend for us to be sympathetic to Bluebeard.
I would love to study the score one day and study it in-depth. But I only have the libretto now (which I will jump around in to make my points), and a DVD of Solti’s production with Sylvia Sass and Kolos Kovats.
Soon after they enter the castle, she discovers his castle is sighing in anguish and weeping. This is the first sign for me that they have entered into his psyche. (Should have brought Ms. Frizzle.) He calls constantly throughout the opera for Judith to be careful-
Through and through my castle trembles. You may open all the others. (He gives her the second key and their meeting hands seems to melt in the red glow.) Judith, careful, ’tis my castle. Go with breathless caution, Judith.
This hints at the vulnerability he is entering into with the opening of each of door.
For me at the time, the 7 doors and what they contained were representative of all the ways we get to know one another in intimate relationships. Through the 1st door is his torture chamber…a metaphor for his violence, aggression and cruelty. The 2nd door is his armory- the sides of him that are strength, male and dominance. Judith had to beg for the 1st and 2nd keys, but after asking for the third key, Bluebeard replies , “Three more heavy keys I give thee.” That is because the next three are parts of himself he has pride in. Behind the 3rd door is his treasury- hidden glittering riches amassed in his soul. The 4th is a beautiful garden, a place of growth and gentleness. The 5th a kingdom, a vast country, representative of his creative spirit and ruling power. Judith keeps asking for more – and eventually the 6th door is unlocked to reveal only tears and the 7th carries his three former wives, still alive. Judith then joins the wives. and Bluebeard is left alone singing,
“Henceforth all shall be darkness,
I remember thinking this was an opera about how it can be too much to know everything about another person; that knowing too much about one another could doom a relationship. It was a big surprise to me after reading the program notes that the wives at the end of this interpretation of the fairy tale were alive. Could Judith have loved him and lived if the door that opened had been full of dead wives? I don’t know. But knowing they were alive- that they were forever a part of his “castle” and the construction of it…that was what doomed the relationship in my eyes. And that was why she semi-willingly joined them, and Bluebeard, having been played to think total honesty would save their relationship, was left alone in darkness.
I watched Bluebeard’s Castle again tonight. And I had a very different experience…one colored by a recent viewing of Salome (also Cleveland Orchestra, this past May with Nina Stemme in the titular role) and HBO’s Girls, season 1. I feel now, at my older age of 23, that I have met many Judith’s, Salome’s, and Hannah’s in my years as a teenager and a twenty-something. Girls who think they love and that their love somehow makes them invincible…and their actions beyond reproach.
The way Judith uses her love to guilt Bluebeard and manipulate him is recognizable in my behavior and the behavior of those around me.
Bluebeard is constantly aware of the kind of intimacy in which they are entering.
“Here we are now. Now at last you see
Before you Bluebeard’s castle.
Not a happy place like your father’s.
Judith, answer. Are you coming?”
“Dearest Judith, are you frightened?”
“Judith, Judith, would it not be
Happier in your father’s castle,
Roses rambling round the terrace,
The sunlight dancing on the roof?”
He warns her and reminds her of her choices in the matter because he wants her to be happy.
She probably thinks she is in love with him…but really, she is only in love with the idea of her love. And the idea of her love as a salvation to her new dark and moody husband. It’s the classic tale of good-girl-wants-bad-boy-because-she-can-save-him!-and-he-will-,like,-totally-change! Example:
“I shall dry weeping flagstones
With my own lips they shall be dried.
I shall warm this icy marble,
Warm it with my living body.
Let me do it, let me do it
I shall brighten your sad castle,
You and I shall breach these ramparts.
Wind shall blow through, light shall enter,
Light shall enter.
Your house shall glitter bright as gold.”
“Light and air will cheer your castle.
Happy sunshine, laughing breezes,
They will cheer your joyless dwelling.
Open, open, open!”
Eventually, in her begging she accuses him of not loving her ,”Don’t you love me?” and when he asks why? why do you need to see behind the doors?, her answer is always something along the lines of, “because I love you!”…when the only one behaving out of love in this opera is Bluebeard. He understands that love and intimacy are things that need to be proceeded in with caution. Whereas, for her, this is almost a game. How much of him can she conquer? How much of him can she save? And change into what she wants? How much is she entitled to? She desires only to be desired and in the end, knowing others have conquered before and will forever be “entitled” to parts of his castle is what besmirches her to him. This reminds me of Salome- these girls think they love and they “love” at any and all costs…including the life of John (Salome’s “love”) and any possible relationship (Judith and Bluebeard.)
Which brings me to the first 3 minutes of this video from episode 10, Season 1 of Girls. Spoiler and profanity alerts so don’t watch if you don’t like either of those things
here’s to no games,