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Bluebeard's Castle
Bluebeard's Castle

Closed doors, open questions: the director about Bluebeard’s Castle

Tobias Kratzer prefers to ask questions rather than to answer them. In the performance Bluebeard’s Castle – with three works by Schumann, Bartók and Zemlinsky – he asks us how free and equal we really are.
Mann sitter i stor sofa Tobias Kratzer / Photo: Julian Baumann

Kratzer wants to take us on a journey through three powerful works from the classical repertoire and different eras. When the curtain goes up, we find ourselves in the 1840s when Robert Schumann wrote the song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben (A Woman’s Love and Life).

Our journey continues to the short operas Duke Bluebeard’s Castle and A Florentine Tragedy and progresses to our present day and all the time we are situated in the same apartment. From that place, we follow the same man, whom we call Bluebeard, with different women and different expectations of a man’s role. Bluebeard is a silent but present husband in Frauenliebe, performs the mysterious title role in Blackbeard and the jealous husband Simone in the grand A Florentine Tragedy. The evening starts, however, on a small and intimate scale with only the pianist Håvard Gimse and mezzo-soprano Ingeborg Gillebo on stage.

“Chamber music, the sound of a voice and piano, is something we associate with a domestic life, and home is at the root of this narrative. From the intimate story of Frauenliebe, we zoom out and broaden our horizons from the 1840s to today via flashbacks form the early 20th century to the moon landing in 1969 and finally, the 1980s,” says director Kratzer.

We see how the apartment changes over time, while continuing to be the setting for power struggles and psychological warfare. Most of the action occurs around a centrally placed piece of furniture.

“In Frauenliebe, the female protagonist sits on a sofa. The only other piece of furniture in the apartment at this time is a coffin, which is the woman’s only way out of there. In Bluebeard’s Castle, the sofa has become a divan, which brings to mind Freud’s therapy sessions and how through analysis, men have justified their actions and constructed a world based on their own perspectives. In A Florentine Tragedy, the piece of furniture is once again replaced, this time by a double bed – which offers equal space to both genders, but still serves as a battlefield between them and inherited structures,” explains Kratzer, who has not yet begun the rehearsals, but has very clear ideas about what he wants to create.

Lise Davidsen’s favourite director

Tobias Kratzer, 43, is one of the world’s most in-demand opera directors. He has earned recognition for his intelligent and historically conscious productions of both classical and newer works, including Wagner’s Tannhäuser at the Bayreuth Festival and Henze’s Das Floss der Medusa at Komische Oper. The latter featured hundreds of performers in an abandoned hangar in Berlin in the autumn of 2023. The trade magazine Opernwelt proclaimed him ‘Director of the Year’ in 2020 and he has been described as ‘one of the smartest minds in the industry’ by The New York Times, while the Norwegian star soprano Lise Davidsen has said that she ‘could easily work with Kratzer in every single production’. From the year 2024, he and his permanent team will be focusing more on Wagner, starting with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, his hometown.

The idea to combine Schumann’s song cycle Frauenliebe und -leben with Duke Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartók and A Florentine Tragedy by Zemlinsky evolved following a number of conversations with opera director Randi Stene and future music director Ed Gardner. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was the starting point that all three desired – an hour-long work that is often coupled with other short operas. In it we encounter Judith, who has followed a mysterious duke into his castle – with seven locked doors that she demands opened. Light is to be let in and all secrets divulged. The work is heavy in symbolism and invites psychological interpretations.

“Sometimes, it is combined with a humorous piece as a contrast, while other times with a work of equal intensity. But my experience has been that there is a lack of coherence in such combinations,” says Kratzer.

While trying to find a work to follow Bluebeard’s Castle, he came up with the idea of adding a prelude as well. Schumann’s song cycle about a woman’s restricted life could be an impactful prologue that introduces the world that the main character in Bluebeard, Judith, wants to break free from and open up.

Victim or heroine?

The story about the girl who uncovers the duke’s dark secrets has been used in feminist interpretations as both a narrative about the power of the patriarch and restraints put upon women. It has been understood as a criticism of violence and suppression, but also an expression of women’s liberation, since it is Judith herself who wants to know and divulge the truth about Bluebeard’s life and the world. She is a woman who is decisive and embraces change.

The same cannot be said about the woman who appears in Frauenliebe. In the course of eight songs, we meet a woman whose entire world and self-understanding revolves around a man she worships above all else. Music historian Ruth Solie has described Schumann’s song cycle as the male fabrication of a woman’s voice, as a false autobiography.

Kratzer does not go that far, but agrees that the work is problematic.  

“I would not call it misogynistic, but it is definitely quite old-fashioned in how it portrays a woman who idolises her husband to the extent that her own life is over when he dies. Her love for her husband comprises her entire world. But alongside Bartók’s opera, I see this woman in a whole new light. She becomes Bluebeard’s first wife and her life continues in Judith’s story.”

Spoiler alert: This is a gory thriller and behind the seventh door, Judith encounters Bluebeard’s previous wives. Kratzer views this as an opportunity to not shut Judith up inside with them, but to set her free.

“This is when Judith realizes what she herself desires, which leads to a process of liberation. She settles the score, confronting as it were the story in which she herself is the protagonist and breaks away from her life with Bluebeard.”

What does Judith mean when she says, “Lead me, Bluebeard”? 

“She is by no means inferior and it’s not so much about finding out about his past as it is about finding out about her own life. What we encounter here is a couple who, after having gotten married or engaged, move into their new home and she gradually learns more about his history, but also about how she is to deal with it.”

At first, Judith wants to open all the doors despite Bluebeard’s protests, but then he also wants to open them – what is going on here? 

“I think it is interesting to figure out when she is the driving force to opening up and finding out more and when she holds back. There are times when you actually do not want to know about your partner’s past or previous relationships, and then there are times when you really want to know – which perhaps says more about your own psychology or that particular moment in the relationship.”

And Bluebeard warns Judith against himself ...

“Yes, and that is interesting because he is showing that he is aware of his own violent tendencies. At the same time, this awareness is a way to make excuses for himself and his actions. ‘You know my temper, my dear, so if I get angry, get away from me’ – this is perhaps one of the worst things you can say to your partner instead of making an effort to control your temper.”

Toxic masculinity and false freedom

In A Florentine Tragedy, we find ourselves in our own time and age, both in terms of the set design and depiction of the relationship.

“Considering the psychological battles that unfold here, it might very well be 2024, although the plot is actually in Renaissance Florence,” says Kratzer, who has presented Zemlinsky’s work before in a completely different production and together with Mozart’s youth opera Bastien und Bastienne.

“It was challenging to find something that could be performed after Bartók’s work, which is so intense, but I am convinced that A Florentine Tragedy fits the bill. Zemlinsky’s music can at first sound more conventional, but is also appropriate in this context because in the plot, we also journey from a world of adventure back to a more conventional situation. At the same time, what we see on stage in A Florentine Tragedy is more modern, which I think can create an interesting counterpoint between what we see and what we hear.”

A Florentine Tragedy is based on a play written by Oscar Wilde. In it we witness an intense love triangle between Bianca, her lover Guido and her husband Simone.

“None of the three is without blame. Our sympathies and antipathies towards these individuals shift constantly throughout the piece – which is what makes it so interesting. One moment you are on Bianca’s side, the next Prince Guido’s and after that, her husband Simone’s. They take advantage of every opportunity to either hurt each other, or at least exploit their advantages, not unlike psychological warfare in which you do not know who is the assailant and who is the victim. And this is what makes the work so modern, because it does not impose any morals on us, but rather shows the ambivalence prevalent in all relationships, the human mystery and desire.”

The role of Simone is sung by the same man as in Bluebeard, who according to Kratzer, has become aware of his own toxic masculinity.

“In A Florentine Tragedy, which we have set in our own time, we want to show how underlying structures in relationships between men and women continue to live on in our bodies, soul and gender roles. Even though we believe we have come a long way, there continue to be many unsolved problems. Here we meet a man who is genuinely trying to be gentler, modern, sensitive and open. His problem is that society and his partner expect something else of him: They want him to also show initiative and confront his wife’s lover.”

Why do you think that we are attracted to power and cruelty like both Bianca and Judith?

“The simple answer is perhaps because they represent a mystery and mysteries are attractive. And it doesn’t have to be cruel or brutal, but something that the person holds back. That is far more interesting than someone who reveals their entire psychology, family values and morals on the first date.”

There are a number of deep structures inside us we do not wish to acknowledge, that we shot the door on .

“Exactly, and that is what makes it so interesting to perform old works like these: We dig deeper into them and discover different layers of meaning, different perspectives on how and why we are where we are today.”

Do you aim to criticise mentalities or structures in our own time? 

“I wouldn’t call it criticism. To use a Facebook term, I would instead say ‘It’s complicated’. I don’t think that everything becomes better with time. If I were to be critical of anything, it would be that we still have a long way to go to reach complete equality and awareness about genders and power structures – if that is even possible. Our present-day time carries the burden of the patriarchal system of the past.”

The woman in Frauenliebe lives a limited, confined live, Judith in Bluebeard cries out that all doors need to be opened, while Bianca in A Florentine Tragedy appears to give vent to all her emotions...

“In my opinion, it is precisely the dialectic between being confined and releasing that makes this performance and the questions it raises so interesting. Opening all doors and releasing everything does not necessarily solve all problems.”

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