The opera begins in total darkness. The setting, which gradually becomes visible after the entrance of Bluebeard and Judith, is an immense hall in the castle interior with several huge doors set into its walls. Judith is infatuated with Bluebeard, happy to leave her family and finances for him. She deflects his repetitious question, "are you afraid," and even when she begins to take in her surroundings--the icy air, the walls running with moisture--she brushes anxiety aside and declares impulsively that she will bring warmth, brightness and love to the castle. When Bluebeard replies that brightness can never penetrate the castle's gloom she responds submissively that she will follow where he leads. But a soon as she becomes aware of the seven barred doors, she demands that they be opened--that she herself be allowed to open them. Bluebeard reminds Judith of the rumors she has heard about him, and when she hammers on the first door a deep sighing is heard. Still refusing to admit to fear, she insists that her love give her the right to unlock the doors. As if hypnotized by her devotion, Bluebeard agrees.
The first door opens into Bluebeard's torture chamber but the gradual emergence of the rising sun counters Judith's apprehension convincing her that opening the other doors will drive the horror away. Behind the second door she discovers Bluebeard's armory and again, despite the blood stains on the weapons, she affects no anxiety, demanding the remaining keys with increasing urgency and proclaiming that her love requires her to share all Bluebeard's knowledge and possessions. The third door opens on the gold-shaded brightness of Bluebeard's treasury, and Judith exults in the beauty of the riches on display as he promises that everything will be hers. Inevitably, however, the brightness dims as blood stains the glittering jewels. Now it is Bluebeard who urges Judith on, and she opens the fourth door onto a still brighter scene, a garden in full bloom. All too soon the flowers are spattered with blood and with still greater agitation Bluebeard commands Judith to unlock the fifth door. In full dazzling sunlight a grand vista of Bluebeard's far reaching domains can be seen. Judith is stunned, and can only mutter submissively as Bluebeard exults in his power. Then a blood stained cloud starts to blot out the sun and despite Bluebeard's almost dance like joy at Judith's still unshaken love, he cannot counter her self-destructive urge to open the remaining doors.
Behind the sixth door is a lake of tears, and a great lament grows in the orchestra which Judith and Bluebeard echo. He embraces her with great tenderness, appearing to believe that her vision of herself as embodying light and hope can after all come true. But her questioning continues and he allows her to discover the real truth. Behind the seventh door she finds his three previous wives. As Bluebeard exultantly declares they embody morning, afternoon and evening. His fourth wife, Judith herself, represents midnight--deep and absolute darkness. After he has sent her tenderly to join the others, and the doors have closed, Bluebeard is left alone. The blackness that Judith has failed to dispel descends with inexorable finality.