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Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945) Duke Bluebeard's Castle (1911, rev. 1917)
John Relyea, Duke Bluebeard; Ekaterina Gubanova, Judith Francis POULENC (1899-1963) La Voix Humaine (1959)
Barbara Hannigan, Her; Claude Bardouil, Him (silent role)
Paris Opera Orchestra/Esa-Pekka Salonen
rec. live, Palais Garnier, Paris, December 2015
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region free: Subtitles English, French, German, Korean
Reviewed in surround sound ARTHAUS 109365 Blu-ray [121 mins]
The header above omits some key information about this well-recorded but challenging disc. On the back of the box is written "An (sic) unique merger of two one-act-operas". I was tempted to abandon reviewing at that point because the idea of merging two superficially unrelated operas by two utterly different composers was too bizarre even for the world of regie opera. On a merely practical level, one-acters are a problem when they are both too short to fill an evening. I have been to a double bill of Bluebeard and Erwartung at the Royal Opera House, and that was very successful. The conjunction of Bartók and Schoenberg seemed highly logical but no suggestion was made of "merging". Having watched this Blu-ray performance continuously for just over two hours, as the audience did in Paris, I am in a position to clarify. The two operas are not merged, they are played in sequence with no applause or curtain after the Bartók, just a silent segue into the action of the Poulenc. The casts of the works are different but they do share the same orchestra, the same conductor, the same video extracts from Cocteau’s film of La Belle et la Bęte, the same stage set and, of course, the same director. The stage director responsible is the very experienced, in theatre and opera, Krzysztof Warlikowski. He directed the recent From the House of the Dead at Covent Garden, where thankfully he did not attempt to "merge" it with anything else, and despite it being set mostly on the indoor basketball court of an American prison, the power of the music and the ideas behind it were quite well projected.
The frame imposed on these two works, not explained in the notes because there are no notes, is provided by John Relyea (Duke Bluebeard) and Barbara Hannigan (Elle), the leads of the two works, coming on stage and performing some magic tricks involving a rabbit, by Ms Hannigan standing on the stage whilst the phone rings between the operas and the combined casts not taking a bow until the end of the Poulenc. The set is common to both but, since a lot of sliding glass boxes are involved, it does change a lot so one is not confused as to which work is being performed. Since "she", "Elle", is so concerned about their shared pet dog, there is an Alsatian sitting in one of the boxes during La Voix Humaine. The Alsatian was the only cast member not to take a bow at the end.
I only wish I had sat and watched this disc with opera-going friends, rather than alone, because I am sure some sort of explanation could be offered for the whole production. At a guess I would suggest they both speak of inner worlds in turmoil and neither work has to be taken at face value. There are quite a lot of works for the operatic stage where ignoring the composer's expressed wishes is not necessarily totally destructive (the reverse is also true).
Musically speaking, both operas are projected with a raw power that they fully justify. The singing and orchestral playing is flawless, the latter acknowledged by the roar of approval for Esa-Pekka Salonen at the end, almost as loud as that for Barbara Hannigan. The singers appear to take on board the konzept, whatever it might be, and act and sing their parts with utter commitment. Barbara Hannigan does such a good job she comes close to eclipsing the others; surely no finer singer-actress exists today. Relyea has a powerful and flexible voice, so he can convincingly command the audience and also Judith, superbly sung by the Mariinsky's Ekaterina Gubanova.
If you want these two operas on Blu-ray, this is almost it. To be strictly accurate, there are video alternatives of Bluebeard but on oldish DVDs, and there is a Blu-ray of La Voix Humaine with Felicity Lott on Champs Hill Records but it is the piano only version. There is a wider choice on audio discs of course but this one could be played with the picture off to equally good effect. You would lose the subtitles, however, necessary unless you are a remarkably capable linguist, and of course you would miss the very well trained Alsatian.