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Wednesday 22 October 2003

Bartok Paper

I read the Bluebeard article with great interest. When I was at the Joan of Arc Centre in Orleans, one of the things I learned is that the real-life Bluebeard may have been the commissioner of the play, La Misterie du Siege d'Orleans, which I am researching. While the man who became famous for his misdeeds is a character in the play, none of his future misdeeds are mentioned and he is treated as a hero. Some suggest that this is evidence that he paid for the play to be written. Others believe that this is useful information for dating the year that the play was written. In either case, Bartok and the anonymous fifteen century playwright share a commonality for casting Bluebird, a real life serial killer of children and folk-tale murderer of wives, as a hero.

Frigyesi's interesting research suggests that Balazs' and Bartok's heroic casting of Bluebird does not use stereotypical and harmful gender roles, but is almost a proto-feminist piece. Unlike the fairy-tale, where Judith is punished for her disobedience, here she just runs into the essentially solitary nature of the soul. Frigyesi acknowledges that other critics feel that the original fairy-tale interpretation is present in the opera and then unearths a mountain of evidence to support his own, contrary, claim. Some of this evidence, however, is underwhelming. For instance, when analyzing the Gulacsy painting The Magician's Garden, Frigyesi suggests that female figure's partial disrobement indicated openness and hence masculinity. While I'm not familiar with the the painting conventions of turn-of-the-century Budapest, I can say with certainty that more recent western images of partially unclothed women with fully clothed men have not intended to convey anything but femininity and submissiveness on the part of the pictured female. While certainly The Magician's Garden is more complicated than a modern Budweiser ad, I require more context to be convinced of Frigyesi's interpretation. Similarly, I am not fully convinced that the ending of the opera, like the folk-tale, is not a punishment Pandora-like for Judith being too curious.

That said, the context Frigyesi provides around the opera greatly increased my understanding of the piece. Otherwise, it would have been hard to know what to make of it other than a very strange retelling of the folk-tale. The nihilistic context is immediately familiar to anyone who was a pretentious highschool student during the time that I was in school. I used to frequent a cafe where all the young patrons wore black clothes and propped up their Nietzsche tomes so that others would be able to see the author's name on the binding of the book. We drank lattes and talked about meaninglessness and how our words could never adequately convey our angst. Had I been aware of this opera during that time, I'm sure that I would have become a great devotee.

The angst, isolation and nihilism that this opera portrays, us teenagers experienced as a facet of modernity. The Kafka story, The Metamorphosis, which was also extremely popular around Coffee Society, takes place in an explicitly modern setting and our highschool english teachers instructed us about the modernist content. Kafka, of course, lived in Prague when he wrote that, but Frigyesi talks about nihilism as a social force throughout eastern and western Europe at the time.

Bluebeard's Castle was also written around the time that the Esperanto movement was gaining steam. The language was invented in Poland and it's "national library" is currently in Budapest. It became extremely popular in France and Germany, but it's strongest staying-power has been in Eastern Europe, especially in Hungary. It's ironic then, that Bartok and other members of the intelligentsia where fretting about the utter inability of words to convey meaning that the same time that others were trying to bridge gaps between people of different languages.

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