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Bluebeard’s Castle was premiered on 24 May 1918 at the Royal Opera House in Budapest. The Wooden Prince was also on the programme; it had been danced for the first time there the year before. Production had been postponed again and again; Bartók had to wait two years until the opera finally premiered near the end of the season; the timing was not favourable.
Then, in November, the monarchy collapsed. Béla Kun’s short-lived regime began in March 1919; 133 days later, Admiral Horthy entered Budapest. These were very, very poor times for performances of contemporary operas –- worse, because the libretti of both works were by Béla Balázs, a brilliant Bohemian and man of letters who had been Minister of Culture in Kun’s government, a circumstance bound to turn out badly. There was no thought of repeating the Bartók-Balázs works during the Horthy years.
Balázs was in exile in Vienna. We often saw him in the Café Museum or the anterooms and the offices around Karlsplatz: a sparkling raconteur, a likeable, nonchalant, stout man with the intelligent mind of a highly gifted dreamer with melancholy eyes, chain-smoking and somewhat overfed. There was no trace of his short ministerial past (which, had he not escaped over the border in time, would surely have cost him his well-coiffed head). Attempts to remove the ostracised librettist’s name from Budapest theater publicity and replace it with an uncompromised pseudonym failed, thanks to Bartók’s unswerving loyalty and belief in his convictions, a stubborn trait which was angelic, unearthly and, later on, at times almost suicidal. But there it was; the two works disappeared from the Budapest repertoire.
In a 1921 essay called “Belá Bartók’s First Opera,” Zoltán Kodály (who could not know that it would also be Bartók’s last) wrote about the combination of the two works, created at almost the same time: “The music’s constructive strength is shown to best advantage if it is followed by The Wooden Prince. The dance play balances the opera’s desolate Adagio with the counterweight of a playful, lively Allegro. The two works nestle together like two movements of an enormous symphony. And those who must misrepresent atonality as Bartók’s main achievement will finally notice that both works share a recurrent basic key – just like this or that Mozart opera …”.
Fine words from a friend, soon gone with the evil wind of time.
The two works remained dormant for four years until in 1922, they were produced at the Frankfurt Opera, by Eugen Szenkbar, whose Hungarian compatriotic heart still beat there for his countrymen. And again two years must pass before the Volksoper in Berlin boldly gave them and the Weimar National Theatre performed Bluebeard, followed by two other German houses in 1925 and one each in 1928, 1929 and 1931.
Bartók emigrated to America in 1940, with bitter memories of the fate of his stage works; a third, the pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin (book by Melchior Lengyel), was banned and removed from the repertoire after only one performance in 1925 by the Cologne City Council; another, planned for Budapest in 1931, was prevented by shocked authorities after the dress rehearsal. A concert version of Mandarin which Bartók arranged met with little favour during his lifetime.
That was how things stood in September 1945, when he died, poor and embittered, in New York. What happened then is beyond the temporal scope of these outlines – yet miracles and transformations of human tragedy into universal triumph transcend space and time. The Zurich Opera performed Bluebeard in 1947; there were two productions in 1948, three in 1949, six in 1950 and 13 in 1951. The dying composer had little memory and certainly no hope for the opera, but it was given over 500 times in the next 20 years in theatres, on radio, television and in concert halls in countless translations in Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires and the Metropolitan in New York, while the Mandarin Suite became a favourite of virtuoso conductors (and those wishing to become such) throughout the world.
Hans Heinsheimer, Die ersten 37 ½ Jahre: Eine Chronik zum 75. Geburtstag des Verlags