Bluebeard's Castle

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

10/08/2023 - 10/08/2023

Christchurch Town Hall, Christchurch

12/08/2023 - 12/08/2023

Production Details

by Béla Bartók, libretto by Béla Balázs
Conductor: Lawrence Renes
Director (Theatre of Sound, UK): Daisy Evans
Revival Director: Stephen Higgins

A Theatre of Sound (UK) production.
Presented by New Zealand Opera and New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

This powerful production, performed in English, reimagines Bartok’s one-and-only famous opera as a love story between a long-married couple living with the devastating reality of dementia, and is set in the present day.

Starring British dramatic soprano Susan Bullock and American dramatic baritone Lester Lynch, currently two of the classical world’s most experienced and sought after singers.

The 95-strong NZSO is led by celebrated guest conductor Lawrence Renes.

Playing one night only in each city at Wellington’s Michael Fowler Centre and the Christchurch Town Hall, this trailblazing, psychologically penetrating opera is described by The Guardian as “a devastating piece of theatre”.

Pōneke Wellington
Michael Fowler Centre
Thursday 10 August 2023, 7.30pm

Ōtautahi Christchurch
Christchurch Town Hall
Saturday 12 August 2023, 7.30pm

Tickets and info and

Judith: Susan Bullock
Bluebeard: Lester Lynch
Judith 1960s: Erin Meek
Judith 1970s/1980s: Katie Burson
Judith 1990s: Marion Prebble
Meadow: Ava Phipps
River: William Kelly

Production Designer: Adrian Linford
Lighting Designer: Jake Wiltshire

Music , Opera , Theatre ,

1 hr

Exceptional production of a dark love story

Review by Max Rashbrooke 13th Aug 2023

An Englishman’s home is his castle, as the saying goes; but in this production, a castle becomes a home. Bartók’s original opera is a frightening tale of a young woman, Judith, who arrives at the castle of her mysterious husband, the titular Bluebeard, and wants to know what lies behind his seven closed doors.

Two years ago, however, British company Theatre of Sound reimagined this narrative as a story of an older couple struggling to come to terms with Judith’s dementia – and it is this version being semi-staged by New Zealand Opera and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra.

The set, laid out in front of and above the orchestra, is simple and homely – old travel trunks, standing lamps and mid-century modern chairs – as if in deliberate opposition to the Gothic architecture of the original. [More]


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Magnificent performances of a multi-layered masterpiece.

Review by Tony Ryan 13th Aug 2023

This production of Béla Bartók’s only opera, Bluebeard’s Castle, gets to the heart of this enigmatic work in a way that helps us to interpret its symbolism while remaining faithful to its creators’ intentions. So much so that tonight’s performance in Christchurch transforms a rather esoteric piece into a truly expressive and moving experience.

Even without this production’s interpretive approach, Bartók and his librettist Balázs’ version of the story, based on the fairy-tale by Charles Perrault, is markedly different from the original in several respects. One of the opera’s interpretive problems is that many previous directors have been unable to ignore Perrault’s horror story, and so miss the real point of the composer’s expressive intent – more on that later.

Tonight’s performers are magnificent! But if the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, at full strength in terms of both its playing and numbers, is the supreme star of the evening, American baritone Lester Lynch (Bluebeard) and UK soprano Susan Bullock (Judith) are both ideal for their respective roles, bringing firm vocal tone to their singing and abundant conviction to the dramatic aspects of their performances, making the whole presentation totally convincing.

The Christchurch Town Hall is hardly ideal for staged opera performances, or perhaps for unamplified voices in any context, so tonight both singers are often overwhelmed by the orchestra as well as by the large space that their voices need to fill. Lester Lynch has a gloriously rich and ‘fruity’ vocal timbre, but it lacks the ‘ping’ needed to hit the back walls of this auditorium. If a review on OperaGene praised his “rich, powerful voice that commands the stage”, that power is not always evident in this performance, even if the opulent and silky quality of his timbre is consistently appealing. Susan Bullock fairs marginally better in terms of audibility, so that her notably warm tonal quality comes across sufficiently and enables her impressive vocal characterisation to fully convey the wide expressive range that her role demands.

Even though the text is sung in English, the producers have wisely chosen to provide projected surtitles in order to ensure that Daisy Evans’ translation is fully intelligible. Some of the text’s vocabulary may be carefully chosen to ensure that this ‘re-imagined’ interpretation is consistent but, comparing it to the translation in the Universal Edition of the score, it remains faithful to the composer’s intentions.

The cast of just two singers is augmented tonight by five silent acting parts representing Bluebeard’s and Judith’s two children and reincarnations of Judith’s earlier life. All five enhance the director’s concept with convincing portrayals which somehow manage to develop the expressive aspects of the plot while remaining relatively unobtrusive.

But it’s the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra which makes the biggest impact, with playing that ranges from subtle colouring of quieter passages to magnificent and, sometimes, devastating climaxes. The lovely little motif, first played by oboes and clarinets near the start, and which sets the tone for Bartók’s heart-felt outpouring of romantic expression throughout his hour-long opera, is beautifully played, while the strings provide richly coloured tonal variety, whether asked to highlight that same romantic spirit or to provide powerful intensity when the drama requires it.

The ultimate climax, when the plot reaches the opening of door five, is overwhelming in both sonic splendour and emotional clout, with the addition of eight extra brass players, doubling the number of trumpets and trombones already in the orchestra, not to mention the further addition of the Town Hall’s great Rieger organ – plus a real sense of power-in-reserve. And here, Judith is so overwhelmed by the wonder of Bluebeard’s symbolic kingdom, that her quietly understated admiration has even more impact in its contrast with the orchestra’s awe-struck C major majesty.

And conductor Lawrence Renes knows how to judge every climax to maximum effect, never overstating earlier moments, so that the Door Five episode makes its fullest impression. Then, at the end, he inspires the orchestra to another climactic peak before the opera ends in quiet acceptance of all that Bluebeard’s castle has revealed.

It should also be said that the issue of balance between orchestra and singers cannot be solved by reducing the orchestra’s dynamics; that would merely lessen the performance’s overall artistic impact. Nor is vocal amplification ideal for opera. The problem here is with venue and acoustics. Whatever the solution, I’m grateful for what the NZSO has given us this evening.

So, what about the director’s claims of this being a re-imagined interpretation?

An article in The Press last Wednesday (9 August) states that “Anyone who knows the original opera written in the early 20th century [. . .] will know it is a grisly affair.” But that is simply not the case. It may be true of Perrault’s original story but, listening to any recording of Bluebeard’s Castle, or reading the score without prior knowledge of Perrault, suggests nothing of murder or grisly horror.

For me it’s a tale of a new young wife who wants to know her husband’s every inner thought and, when he feels obliged to reveal his secrets one by one, she, at first, feels enlightened, but then becomes aware of the darkness of his inner struggles (self-torture, inner conflicts, the ultimate worthlessness of possessions, etc.) And when the seventh and final door reveals his three former wives (living, according to the score), she loses her own sense of self-worth. But are those former wives real, or do they represent different periods of her own imminent life with her new husband? It’s a story about the joys and tragedies of a life about to be lived, and perhaps best left unknown until each bridge is reached and crossed.

Whereas, in this new interpretation, an older and much-loved wife who has lost her memory of the past, insists on being told everything she has forgotten. Door by door she relives the joys and tragedies of a life already lived; again, perhaps best left forgotten, because every joy is seen to have a cloud, a disappointment. Whatever the case, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle is a multi-layered masterpiece that can sustain a variety of interpretations. This new production from the NZSO and NZ Opera, takes one standpoint that certainly makes us think about the work’s symbolism. Performances of this opera are a rarity, especially in New Zealand; and tonight’s presentation is a welcome revelation (an eighth door perhaps?) that makes me look forward very much to any future opportunities to experience it again.


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A bold, brilliant reimagining of Bartók’s opera 

Review by Elizabeth Kerr 11th Aug 2023

The dramatic trajectory of this contemporary production of Bluebeard’s Castle is vivid and deeply moving from its opening bars till the passionate conclusion. Created by the UK company Theatre of Sound, and presented by NZSO and NZ Opera, it opened in Wellington this week and will also be performed in Christchurch. For me, its greatest wonder is the faithful use of the original text and music to tell a tragic story of today, a superb creative reimagining of Bartók ‘s only opera.

Bartók wrote Bluebeard’s Castle in 1911. He was 30 years old. The Gothic work, with a libretto by the composer’s friend, poet Béla Balázs, was based on the French folk tale published in the 17th century by Charles Perrault. Disappointingly for Bartók, it was not accepted for performance at the time, and waited seven years for its premiere.

As we know, 1918 was a terrible year in Europe.  Well before World War 1 ended in November, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was weakened by crop failure, widespread starvation and the 1918 ‘flu pandemic. And yet, in May, Bluebeard’s Castle, with some revisions by Bartók, had its premiere at the Royal Hungarian Opera House in Budapest, under the baton of Egisto Tango. [More]


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A compelling, convincing and amazingly moving production

Review by Dave Smith 11th Aug 2023

When this staggeringly ambitious co-production between The NZSO and NZ Opera ends on its last superb lighting effect – one of many – the audience is left simply stunned for two or three minutes.  There is a silence of profound richness. Not one where the audience can’t quite make up its mind whether to applaud or not. This one is a collective agony between weeping and clapping.

In NZ terms, this one act opera has all the demands of Project Apollo. As the rocket in that daring project mandated thousands of mechanical reactions that had to synchronize in milliseconds so, in this operatic piece, 75 orchestral players have to respond, with lightning reflexes, to the dramatic singing of just a man and woman as they act out the most dreadful pangs of being human. It is an artistic and logistical achievement beyond words.

Bluebeard’s Castle is a 20th century work that has been through inspired and often successful re-conceptions. It has the magical capacity of being endlessly plastic and able serve many evolving needs of the current zeitgeist. It started its foetal life, long before Bartok seized it, as a crude fairy tale in the Red Riding Hood school of terror coupled with melodramatic gore.

The Hungarians Bartok and librettist Balazs were austere soulmates who in their own quiet lives had raised human isolation and loneliness to the level of an art form. Between them they did the impossible in creating a masterpiece of an opera on their first (and only) try.

When the audience initially addresses the Bluebeard concert stage it finds a most uncastle-like mise en scene. Leaving aside the NZSO that almost fills the available space, we see a minimal set. It looks like the front room of a semi-detached bungalow in Kilbirnie. The castle is not one made of stone but is rooted in the mind – or more precisely a small trunk, in which lie the tiny but unique tangible flotsam of a couple’s past lives. The domestic hanging lights within this room are many and various. They ascend into the giant roof space above. They will prove to be the everyday inner lights of us all and contribute mightily to the overall mood of the story. 

Bluebeard (Lester Lynch) is a giant of a middle-aged to elderly man who wears his trouser braces over his shirt. He is about to show his woman/wife Judith (Susan Bullock) around ‘his’ place. We are unsure whether her seeming lack of familiarity with it is because it is new to her or whether it is, in fact, a familiar place but, suddenly and unaccountably, strange. The music becomes increasingly tortured and foreboding. I am quickly put in mind of the jolting and screechy Bernard Herrman themes that ushered Marion Crane to her baptism of blood in the Bates Motel almost 50 years after Bartok first showed the way.

There seems to be an impending disaster as Judith literally demands to see behind all the ‘doors’ that are, in the modern representation, exemplified by the uniquely ordinary family items in the trunk. All evidence of past life in the ‘castle’ is suddenly collapsed into ghaudy garments, Polaroids, birthday cards, trivial hats – the usual. Live visual forms of the earlier Judith and kids come and go through each vital stage of life across 30 years. She and Bluebeard seemingly rejoice at each of these wondrously normal moments of human happiness and growth – but there is a catch. 

The foreboding keeps coming back as felt through Judith’s bodily distancing and the twisting and eerie music – along with the disquieting changing of the light quality; one moment warmly coloured, the next receding into a puzzling darkness. Wondrously pleasing natural objects become, through Judith’s eyes, drenched in blood; blood we do not see except through Judith’s obvious dread and the anguished emotions of the sharp musical progressions and jarring keys. At times the orchestra acts as a form of ghostly Greek chorus. 

Bluebeard, far from being the torturing and bloodthirsty fellow his name suggests, proves to be the polar opposite. He seeks to spare Judith the agonies of self-knowledge and her blurring mental paralysis. He even prohibits her opening the last ‘door’. But this cup she chose to drink and so she eventually must. We (and she) can recognize this as a frightening point in human existence. Bluebeard himself edges back into the shadows and nature takes its course. The audience knows that their fate and Judith’s are very much one and the same.

There can be no praise too high for this amazingly moving production. Lester Lynch and Susan Bullock mange to caress and repel in the one voice, their grasp of the volatile characters and their range of vocal expression (only occasionally drowned out by a full-on orchestra) is peerless. Lawrence Renes as conductor intimately captures and nails all the fiendishly difficult tones, volumes and timings.

Jake Wiltshire’s lighting design is both crucial and assured. Director and translator Daisy Evans has done a superb ordinary speech translation from what could well be a challenging source. Adrian Linford’s scenic and costume design hits all the subdued and exotic notes as required. Overall, an eye-wateringly fine and confident team effort.

I would not have thought it possible to have such a convincing concert version of an opera. Not for one moment does it feel stagey, way-out or contrived. The loving but blighted relationship between Bluebeard and Judith rings true. One could at times forget that they were singing and not simply speaking caringly in a harsh and remorseless world that both gives and takes.

If this massive work comes your way do not even think of passing it by on the other side of the road.  It is a compelling story of what it means to be human in all of life’s cruel moments in both light and darkness.


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