Like Béla Bartók, many turn of the century composers were attracted to the story of Duke Bluebeard, perhaps because for the first time the complexity of women was being taken seriously. Major novelists like the Brontës and George Sand, and characters in literature like Madame Bovary, meant that all of a sudden, Bluebeard was seen as not just a European version of the Thousand and One Nights, but a deeper questioning of the differences between the sexes.

On the one hand, you can look at Perrault’s 1697 folk tale with its inquisitive wife as an extension of the Wagnerian Lohengrin-Elsa dilemma or the Christian idea of Eve’s curiosity being her downfall, but by the time we get to the works of Maeterlinck, which influenced Béla Balázs’ poem from which Bartók’s libretto was taken, there was a sense that psychoanalysis had gazed into the depths of the human soul. It’s as if you are looking into a very deep well and you can’t see the bottom, but occasionally you can put a bucket down and bring something up.

Bluebeard's Castle, Sydney Symphony OrchestraRichard Burton as Bluebeard in the 1972 film

Bluebeard’s Castle is less an opera about action as it is an opera about people. Isaiah Berlin has a wonderful phrase for it, which is “the dark mass of factors that make up human kind”. It was a male dominated society beginning to recognise the importance of the feminine point of view that inspired Schoenberg’s Erwartung or the work of Austrian writers like Schnitzler or Stefan Zweig. There’s a new awareness of just how complex the interaction can be between male and female. The director Peter Stein once said to me “Thank goodness, because if there weren’t, there would be no theatre left!”

Balázs’ poem clearly struck a chord with Bartók, and his opera is a culmination of the way love works as shown in his three theatre pieces (The Wooden Prince and The Miraculous Mandarin also show extreme forms of the male-female relationship). The dynamic between Bluebeard and Judith especially appealed to the composer who had been in a doomed relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer, for whom he wrote some very passionate music, that had never come to fruition. Bluebeard’s Castle is actually dedicated to his first wife Márta, though I’m not sure this is one that I would devote to my significant other.

Bartók, I think, identifies with both characters, so I hope audience members don’t just root for their own team as it were. The aspect of fear at the beginning with a male character who is trying to let someone in is certainly not exclusive to one gender. And then there’s Judith, wishing to know more about this person, but as she begins to understand her sense of idealism diminishes. I think males and females can reach a certain point and think “Really? That’s you… I see”. And that’s the difficulty of finding a mate.

The work is modern, but not overtly so. It’s never outwardly trying to shock. Stravinsky reached back into traditional Russian music to pull out primitive materials for The Rite of Spring, which he clothed in a great deal of dissonance. In Bluebeard, Bartók plugs into a much deeper tradition through his use of Hungarian folk music. The elemental melody right at the beginning that comes back at the end is in a sense saying that this is timeless – the eternal case of two different parts trying to find a unity.

In Bluebeard you hear Bartók finding his mature style, a style that is unlike anything anyone else is doing at the time. His use of the pentatone is highly original, and superimposing two separate whole tone scales that always remain themselves and never intertwine makes for music of an intensely chromatic colour.

The challenge for a conductor is to keep it feeling as though the singers are making it up as they go along, even though the structure is tightly controlled by the composer. You need a sense of going with the drama, because there’s no major action on the stage. To some extent it’s little more than “Here’s a door” – “Can I open it up?” – “Sure, here’s the key”. The piece has to gradually tighten towards the final door, while balancing an ever more enthusiastic Bluebeard with an ever more recalcitrant Judith. The final moment epitomises the passion and the tragedy of a union that can never transcend the fatal flaws contained within it at the outset.

David Robertson conducts the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, John Relyea and Michelle DeYoung in Bluebeard’s Castle at Sydney Opera House, Nov 29 – Dec 2.