Back in the days when the BBC’s television output challenged its audience rather than pandered to it, Leslie Megahey was a name I always looked out for. During the 1970s and 80s, Megahey was one of the corporation’s outstanding producers and directors, and since his tastes often ran very close to mine seeing his name in a magazine listing was an alert for some essential viewing. Favourite Megahey documentaries would include his Omnibus film about (and interview with) György Ligeti in 1976, and the two-part Arena special about Orson Welles in 1982 that persuaded the director to talk at length for the first time about his career. Megahey’s arts films included drama documentaries about the French painters David and Gericault, and two dramas with painting themes, Cariani and the Courtesans (1987), and Schalcken the Painter (1979), the latter being an exceptional adaptation of the Sheridan Le Fanu ghost story. Duke Bluebeard’s Castle was one of the last of his BBC films, an adaptation of the Bartók opera that had this Bartók obsessive hopping with delight when it was screened in 1988.
Bluebeard and Judith.
Bartók’s only opera was written in 1911, and is easier to adapt than most, being a single act of an hour or so in length with only two performers, Bluebeard (bass) and Judith (soprano). Given this it’s surprising there haven’t been more filmed versions. I wrote something a while back about the seldom-seen Michael Powell version; then there’s a version from 1981 by Miklos Szinetár scored by the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Georg Solti conducting. Megahey’s film also features the London Philharmonic with Adam Fischer conducting. Robert Lloyd and Elizabeth Laurence are the performers.
The libretto by Béla Balázs turns the old fairy tale into a psychodrama that’s also one of the first post-Freud operas, with the audience being asked in the prologue “Where is the stage? Is it outside, or inside?” Judith is ushered into the castle by Bluebeard to find seven locked doors: her curiosity and her demands to discover what lies behind the doors (or inside the mind of her husband-to-be) seals her fate. In some of the fairy tale versions the brothers of the bride arrive at the last moment to rescue their sister; not so here.