/Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – A Horror Opera (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Charles Dutoit)

Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle – A Horror Opera (Royal Philharmonic Orchestra & Charles Dutoit)

 Sir Willard White
Ildikó Komlósi

I hadn’t come across Béla Bartók before tonight’s performance of his opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle at the Royal Festival Hall. It was only until the opera began that I realised I was about to experience my first horror opera. 

The orchestra of the night was the dazzling Royal Philharmonic. They shone and soared through Bartók’s multifaceted masterpiece with maestro Charles Dutoit conducting and revealing the dark hues of Bartók’s insidious work.

It was fairly recent news that Andrea Meláth and Bálint Szabó could not sing the roles of the Duke or Judith due to illness. Yet unexpected replacements Ildikó Komlósi and Sir Willard White, both on top form, saved the show.


Charles Dutoit

Komlósi took audiences in and out of Judith’s curious mind and bewitched them with her vocal talent as, both a worrisome woman and passive wife. Sir White elicited traits of a dangerous man from the moment he sang the first note, an inclusion deliberately added by Bartók to enrich his phenomenal score.

Despite only being  an hour long, the opera contains some of the most chilling and spine-tingling music you could heard from psychological thrillers, ‘scary’ movies and film noir. Sitting there in the Royal  Festival Hall I recognised similar musical extracts, and had the same reactions, to listening to Strauss’ Sprach Zarathustra, Ridley Scott ‘s Aliens’ films (with scores composed by Jerry Goldsmith) and Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho. 

Judith’s Journey in Bluebeard’s Castle 

The opera is based on a Duke who introduces his wife to a castle of seven locked doors, spilling blood. It’s too gruesome not to pique anyone’s interest. Mention ‘torture chamber’ and many will realise it isn’t a typical romantic opera.  

For the evening’s semi-staged performance audiences were left to use their imagination through reading Christopher Hassall’s translation of Béla Balázs’s original libretto and allowing Bartók’s musical creativity to guide them on Judith’s steps of opening each blood-soaked door. 

An audio effect was used to enhance the ominous quagmire of terror and dread. It was the sound of air blowing through the hollow and mysterious castle that the Duke and his wife were walking in.  

Each door unlocked a different type of space: the intense stir of strings for a menacing torture chamber in door one; a room of armoury for door two; a treasure room, depicted by a light tinkering sounds from a celesta, for door three; and a fragrant garden, illustrated by discordant flutes, for room four. 

Yet the pinnacle orchestral moments took place when Judith made her way into the fifth door, screaming. The long chords from the Royal Festival Hall’s large organ, shown off by Andrew Lucas, echoed entry into another realm – a next level up of macabre. One soon became concerned, and afraid, for Judith’s life.  

As we moved onto room six blaring brass instruments and hard thuds of timpani increased the dramatic suspense. The inquisitive wife enters door number six, a lake of tears, represented by gentle glissandi from a harp. But it’s too late for any hope of a happier ending. Not even the harp could transform the outcome. 

The conclusion had less musical climax, compared to door five, but there’s an apotheosis nonetheless. Here, Bartók mucks with our head. We know that the Duke will kill Judith as he had done with his previous wives but it is this type of titillation, which causes many to love his music.


Bartók was influenced by the existential readings of Nietzsche and the national Hungarian mood at the onset of the First World War. He once wrote, ‘ I cannot conceive of music that expresses absolutely nothing’ and I believe he left the ending progressively quieter, unsettling and unresolved for audiences’ to re-think what death means.

His cinematic visionary music grabs us. Bartók, probably, wasn’t aware his music would be compared to modern-day film or that he’d still be studied for that matter! Yet the opera tells us more about Bartók, which, even, he would admit.  We learn that he was a visceral composer and yet in the face of war conflict, he chose to construct the human spirit through an opera, which, after his death, is cherished by many.  

For more events taking place at the Royal Festival Hall, please click here. 

Photos courtesy of Willard White, Ildiko Komlosi and Charles Dutoit home websites. 

Experienced my 1st sci-fi #horropera The musical magnitude of Bartók made my spine tingle #Bluebeardcastle @rpoonlin pic.twitter.com/L7G6J1f52P

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 27, 2015

Credit to Mr Organ with grand entrance at Door No. 5 #AndrewLucas @rpoonline #BluebeardCastle #Notforgottingthepipes pic.twitter.com/vaGT03SYcd

— Mary Grace Nguyen (@MaryGNguyen) January 27, 2015