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 intended to combine performance, music, lighting and set design thereby creating 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 that would have had contributions from Igor Stravinsky and Dylan Thomas. Their plans didn’t work 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.
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.
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.