wed 28/02/2024

Michael Powell: a happy time with Bartók’s Bluebeard | reviews, news & interviews

Michael Powell: a happy time with Bartók’s Bluebeard

Michael Powell: a happy time with Bartók’s Bluebeard

Fine performers in perfect balance with fantastical visuals for this profound one-act opera

Judith (Ana Raquel Satre) between the eyes of Bluebeard (Norman Foster0All images BFI

In his final years Michael Powell mooted the possibility of a Bartók trilogy. He wanted to add to the growing popularity of his work on Bluebeard’s Castle, the deepest of one-act operas, an idea he had previously rejected of filming the lurid "pantomime" The Miraculous Mandarin and, as third instalment, not the earlier ballet The Wooden Prince but a film about the composer’s time in America and his return, after death, to Hungary.

Who knows, it could have been a masterly triptych as the film-maker’s operatic trio was not – somewhat ironically, since of course the collaborator on the earlier two, Emeric Pressburger, was of Hungarian birth. The Tales of Hoffmann, fitfully brilliant, was flawed/floored by the problematic question of Offenbach editions, particularly in the Venetian act; the fantasy involving the doll Olympia (Moira Shearer, following up her triumph in The Red Shoes) would form the perfect double-bill with Bluebeard’s Castle. Oh…, Rosalinda!!, despite its clever update to post-World-War-Two Vienna, tripped up on the dodgy dramaturgy of Johann Strauss Junior's tuneful but lopsided operetta (tell me about a Fledermaus that works beyond the central party scene, other than in concert, and I’ll rush to see it). This reordering of musical numbers offers no happy solution; there’s still the usual sense of “when will this finally all be over?”.Scene from Powell's 'Bluebeard's Castle'Watch the 1963 Bluebeard’s Castle in the German version with English subtitles – the English soundtrack doesn’t fit, and we're told the Uruguayan Judith had problems with the language– and you’ll not be surprised to learn from the extras and the booklet of a welcome DVD edition that it was a happy collaboration with both the singers and long-term designer Hein Heckroth, celebrated above all for his work on The Red Shoes. Of course only having to deal with two characters and a single location – created in a somewhat makeshift Salzburg warehouse studio - made the process less fraught than usual. But this is a notoriously difficult drama to stage; human interaction in which one feels pity for both the isolated soul of Bluebeard and the brave, if ultimately unhinged, determination of his latest wife Judith to learn the truth is rarely held in perfect balance with the fantastical symbolism. Powell, amazingly, brings it off.

The idea was that of bass-baritone Norman Foster, not an overly familiar name among 20th century opera stars, but a powerful singing actor with excellent diction and malleable facial expresssions. He'd previously starred as Falstaff in a film he'd commandeered for German television of Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor. A vanity project, then? Not as it turned out; if Foster as producer thought that the Judith to his Bluebeard was just going to be a pretty face and a voluptuous body drifting about in various stages of undress, he got a lot more, not least thanks to Powell’s understanding of both singers. Ana Raquel Satre (pictured below) is indeed beautiful – curiously, the director praised her “long nose which quivered with sensibility" as well as her ”large and lustrous and immensely expressive” eyes - but there’s plenty of emotional intelligence, even if Powell doesn’t stint on the physical attraction between the two. Ana Raquel Satre in 'Bluebeard's Castle'It was done on a low budget, beginning with the sound recording in Zagreb, but it doesn't look it. Heckroth’s designs suspend us between fantasy sculptures underlining the (central) sexual element of the drama, doors which seem to be rune-carved stones and fluid, layered spaces with glass or cellophane divisions and the marriage bed where Judith’s investigations begin. There are no keys, the doors when opened take on different shapes and curiously Powell shirks the blaze of light when Bartók uses C major to dazzle us, and Judith, with the sight of Bluebeard’s fifth-door kingdom; the couple embrace, and only then does Judith look beyond. The pool of tears has the composer's creepiest and most desolate sound-effects; Heckroth and Powell rise to the challenge.

What, then, of the seventh door (look away now if you don’t want a spoiler)? Much has been made of the fact that Powell turned to another alleged woman-killer after the scandal of Peeping Tom. Christie, eloquent in a substantial interview which is one of the extras in the stunningly remastered Blu-Ray release, describes Bluebeard as a murderer. Yet librettist (and later film theorist) Béla Balázs has a twist: the three previous wives, as Judith observes in amazement, are alive. Powell makes sure they aren’t (I’ll leave it at that). Of course as Perrault and later Angela Carter tell us, the latest wife isn't necessarily doomed; is this misogyny? Surely it's more complex a response from composer and film-maker. The denouement is still awe-inspiring, the sense of the frozen soul, having part-unthawed, left in infinite loneliness as powerful as it should be. Scene from 'Bluebeard's Castle'Another extra is a short 1980 documentary of Powell at Dartmouth College, working with film students on a 15-minute pilot which might have led to a full adaptation of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. It’s clear from what we see that music would have played another vital role in the whole. But here, in Bluebeard’s Castle, we have pared-down perfection of the Powell fantasia, unique imaginations brought to bear on a masterpiece.

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