Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard

bluebeard01.jpg

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.

bluebeard02.jpg

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.

bluebeard03.jpg

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.

Continue reading “Leslie Megahey’s Bluebeard”

Powell’s Bluebeard

bluebeard1.jpg

The subject of yesterday’s post, The Tales of Hoffmann, was the closest Michael Powell came to realising his concept of the “composed film”, a work which would combine performance, music, lighting and set design to create something which was unique to cinema. The central ballet sequence in The Red Shoes is another example of this, and Powell & Pressburger had plans to follow Hoffmann with similar works, including something based on The Odyssey which would have had contributions from Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. None of this worked out, unfortunately, Hoffmann was less successful than was hoped and the Archers partnership was eventually reduced to making dull films about the Second World War until P&P went their separate ways. The scandal of Peeping Tom in 1960 finished Powell’s career as a filmmaker in Britain, but he managed to return to the composed film concept in 1963 when production designer Hein Heckroth asked him to direct a production of the Bartók opera Bluebeard’s Castle for German television. Heckroth was responsible for the distinctive character of the later Archers films, including The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann, but was working here with greatly reduced resources. Being a great Bartók enthusiast as well as a Powell aficionado it’s long been a source of frustration for me that this hour-long film is one of the least visible from Powell’s career. To date, the stills shown here are about the only visuals one can find.

bluebeard2.jpg

Bluebeard: Norman Foster.

Bluebeard’s Castle was Bartók’s only opera, a tremendous work and a lot easier to digest than some being a one-act piece for two singers: bass (Bluebeard) and soprano (Judith, his wife-to-be). The fairy tale of the murderous husband is turned into a psychodrama with Judith’s successive opening of the castle’s seven doors revealing more than she wants to know about her suitor’s personality. The libretto by Béla Balázs drops the last-minute rescue of the heroine by her brothers for a darker conclusion. The simple storyline and pronounced symbolism—the doors are often given different colours, while the rooms to which they lead each have a symbolic decor and import—lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Needless to say I’d love to see how Heckroth and Powell presented the drama. To whet the appetite further, one of the P&P sites has this account of a recent screening.

bluebeard3.jpg

Judith: Ana Raquel Sartre.

There are many other filmed versions of this opera, of course, and YouTube has the usual motley selection chopped into opus-ruining ten-minute segments. The BBC screened a fantastically gloomy version in 1988 by Leslie Megahey, director of many fine TV documentaries including the major Orson Welles edition of Arena in 1982 and a chilling adaptation of Sheridan Le Fanu’s Schalcken the Painter. His Bluebeard has been released on DVD in the US, and YouTube has an extract here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Tale of Giulietta
Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes
Béla Bartók caricatured