Until the 11th of April 2018, the Opera of Paris will perform the diptych “Bluebeard’s Castle / The Human Voice” directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski created in November 2015. We were looking forward to this exciting and accomplished production.
All productions combining multiple short operas in one evening raise the same question: how to ensure the coherence of a show made up of two different works, different composers, different languages, different periods? Should we be satisfied with a simple juxtaposition? Should the chosen works necessarily resonate (either by their proximity, or by their contrast)?
The link between Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Poulenc’s The Human Voice is not so immediate. In both cases, the amount of characters is very restricted (Poulenc’s work is a monologue). In both cases, the couple is clearly dysfunctional. But the dramatic stakes and the stylistic treatment are quite different. Warlikowski (whom Don Carlos was recently at the Opera Bastille) does not try to forcefully establish a continuity that doesn’t exist. And yet the overall consistency of the whole seems extraordinarily natural. In a unique setting for both operas, the transition between Bartók and Poulenc takes place with great fluidity. No intermission, no applause; the main character of The Human Voice makes his entrance during the last bars of Bluebeard’s Castle. She then advances in a heavy silence, while Bluebeard and Judith disappear from the viewers’ eyes. The excerpt from “La Belle et la Bête”, screened just before the first bars of Poulenc’s opera, echoes the preceding work, by evoking a forced captivity on the verge of the Stockholm syndrome, and announces the following work since the director of La Belle et la Bête, Jean Cocteau, is nothing but the librettist of “The Human Voice “.
The evening begins with Bluebeard’s Castle : a long silent prologue shows us Bluebeard as a cabaret magician, levitating his assistant and making a dove and a rabbit appear. He appoints a person among the audience: it is Judith who gets up from her seat and comes on stage to follow Bluebeard to his mysterious castle without knowing that she will never get out of it.
From the outset, Ekaterina Gubanova‘s Judith appears as a kind of hyper sexualized vamp. The relationship between the young woman and her jailor overflows with sensuality and is full of physical contact. As the different doors of the castle are opened, there is a tense ambiguity that leaves a constant doubt: which of the two characters is under the influence of the other. And Warlikowski manages to preserve this ambiguity. Perhaps the answer is a bit of both. John Relyea‘s Bluebeard is beautifully dark and disturbing. But in reality, it is the magnetic presence of Gubanova that we retain : her rich timbre suggests Judith’s different psychological states, eroticism, fear, sassy confrontation… And she easily sustains the terrible high C accompanying the opening of the 5th door of the castle.
The depiction of the different rooms seems almost classical when one knows Warlikowski’s work on other lyrical works. Here the 7 rooms of the castle look like museum windows, with glass walls, progressively emerging from the sides of the stage.
The portrayal of The Human Voice is more surprising. The telephone handset on the side will not serve once. Obviously the female character does not really converse with her lover. The idea that she is in a delirious state and that the conversation only occurs in her head is confirmed when the said lover finally appears, crawling towards the front stage, with a bloodstained shirt, probably murdered by Her. At the end of the monologue, the two characters will end up joining in death .
Barbara Hannigan‘s French is not perfect and sometimes one has to lift his head towards the surtitles. But apart from this, we can only be seduced by the almost beastly embodiment of the singer, which makes us completely forget the slightly old-fashioned and outdated side of Cocteau’s libretto (which deals with telephone operators, fountain pens and gramophones).
The singer’s entire body becomes an interpretation tool : she twists herself on the couch and throws herself to the ground with such force that it is hard to imagine who else could replace her in this production. At the end of the performance, she obtains a well-deserved triumph.
The use of video is fairly different in the two parts of the show : in Bluebeard’s Castle it seems to bring out symbolic elements by showing us a child filmed in black and white (obviously the same as the one in the 6th room). The blood flowing from the child’s nose, the only bright red element, echoes the blood constantly evoked by Balazs’ libretto.
In The Human Voice, the video becomes on the contrary a quasi clinical element. The character of Elle is filmed in real time from above, thus giving us a new, almost raw perspective, made of close-ups of a face with dripping make-up and of blood-stained hands.
The Paris Opera Orchestra responds admirably to Ingo Metzmacher‘s baton (who replaces Esa-Pekka Salonen who conducted it in 2015). The quality of the winds is particularly remarkable, especially when a part of the brass section (trumpets and trombones) resonates from a balcony, ensuring a striking sound immersion effect if you are lucky to be located on the parterre of the Palais Garnier.
Le Château de Barbe-Bleue
Opera in one act by Béla Bartók (1918)
Libretto by Béla Balazs
Barbe-Bleue : John Relyea
Judith : Ekaterina Gubanova
La Voix humaine
Lyrical tragedy in one act by Francis Poulenc (1959)
Libretto de Jean Cocteau
Elle : Barbara Hannigan
Orchestra of the Opera of Paris
Conductor : Ingo Metzmacher
Set : Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Costumes : Małgorzata Szczęśniak
Lights : Felice Ross
Videos : Denis Guéguin
Choreography: Claude Bardouil
Dramaturgt : Christian Longchamp
Staging : Krzysztof Warlikowski
Palais Garnier 17 march 2018