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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 - Elle
Claude Bardouil - Lui (silent role)
Krzysztof Warlikowski, stage direction
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 German, English, French, Korean
ARTHAUS DVD 109364 [121 mins]

Maurice Ravel did opera companies a favour by composing two one-acters, masterpieces both, yet different enough and complementary enough to make a perfect double bill. Puccini composed three, and then there’s ‘Cav and Pag’, paired so often that I grew up thinking they were one and the same work. The Paris Opera decided to break that particular mould a couple of years ago, putting on Cavalleria Rusticana before Hindemith’s Sancta Susanna, as unlikely a duo as you are likely to encounter. But does that matter? Is it not possible to stage two completely different operas on a single night? Does there have to be some kind of connection?

This DVD commemorates an evening at the sumptuous Opéra Garnier in Paris where stage director Krzysztof Warlikowski sought to ‘merge’ two otherwise unrelated operas. What was meant by ‘merge’, one wonders? When two commercial entities merge the result tends to be that they become one. Is that what happens here?

Some years ago, I attended a double bill in Frankfurt’s adventurous opera house, where Bluebeard’s Castle was given as the second opera of the evening, following Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. The staging of the Purcell has not burned itself into my memory, though I do remember being scandalised by the idea that the orchestra leave the pit, player by player, with the result that the very last note was left unplayed. Bartók’s masterpiece, on the other hand, I remember very well. It was played out on a raised circular stage, more or less completely black, and with minimal props. Compared to this staging from Paris there was very little ‘business’, but it was, in my view, a far more successful realisation of the composer’s intentions.

Let’s remind ourselves of the story. Bluebeard arrives in his castle, accompanied by his new wife, Judith. All is dark and miserable, and Judith wants to inject some light and life into the place. She notices a series of locked doors and wants to know what lies behind them. Bluebeard resists, but one by one the doors are opened. Some reveal horrors – an armoury, a room of torture – whereas others, such as the vast expanse of Bluebeard’s kingdom, or his garden, are more encouraging. Each is stained with blood, however. Foolishly, and in spite of Bluebeard’s steadfast resistance, Judith succeeds in having the final door opened, where she finds each of Bluebeard’s three previous wives. The opera ends as she goes in to join them.

Bartók’s music does not seek to answer any of the many questions we might want to ask about this story. On the contrary, it brilliantly reinforces the ambiguity. If the work is to succeed on stage the director must find a way of realising in visual and dramatic form what Bartók’s miraculous music achieves in sound.

In Paris, the evening opens against an aural backdrop of thunder. Bluebeard appears as a conjuror. His assistant is none other than Barbara Hannigan with a discouraging hairdo. Bluebeard produces the odd dove from the odd hat, then a rabbit, before reciting – and very well – the text that serves as an introduction to the opera. Judith, we soon see, is in the audience, and is coaxed on to the stage by Bluebeard, where Hannigan, looking rather jealous, is sensuously stroking the rabbit. The stage, then, is Bluebeard’s castle, and as Judith arrives inside, Hannigan slinks away.

The opera has not even started yet, but so far, so unpromising. Things do not improve. There’s nothing wrong with portraying Judith as someone very sure of herself, striding around in her green dress and high heels, but did she really have to remove Bluebeard’s black gloves with her teeth? Looking into the torture chamber reveals a child with a bloody nose. The same child, now weeping, is present in the armoury. At some point, Bluebeard acquires a bloody nose himself. The treasury is particularly feeble, though even that is better than the wretchedly inadequate solution found to evoke the enormous extent of Bluebeard’s kingdom. One might wonder what a stage director can really do when the music evokes the situation so much more powerfully than any visual image could? Yet something has to be done, because opera is a visual and theatrical form. And things are possible. In Frankfurt, Simon Bailey as Bluebeard produced a glorious garden from the sleeves of his costume; and later, his entire body began to weep, rivers flowing from him in an extraordinary feat of theatrical magic, leaving him standing, quite literally, in a lake of tears. In Paris, accompanied by Bartók’s miraculous music, a few waves are projected and the child reappears, in person now, with the rabbit in his lap. He is a silent witness, watching closely what I imagine is meant to be an erotic encounter between the newlyweds, and which leads to the opening of the final door. Bluebeard hands over the seventh key – too late, the door is already open! – revealing three glamorous women, well-dressed and well-kept, who proceed to pamper him and set him comfortably on the sofa that has been at the front of the stage throughout. Judith now has her coat on, wisely, one might think, but the wives have other ideas, and they gently escort her into their sanctum behind that fateful, seventh door.

At this point, as Bartók’s music fades into silence, Barbara Hannigan limps into view as Elle, the sole character in Poulenc’s opera, La Voix humaine. One opera is thus performed after the other, without a break. The sofa is common to both sets, as is a television showing extracts from Jean Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bęte. Otherwise, very little. Hardly any kind of merger, then; all to the good, perhaps.

La Voix humaine, like Bluebeard’s Castle, presents serious challenges to a stage director, as virtually nothing happens. It takes the form of a prolonged phone conversation between Elle and the lover who has left her. Barbara Hannigan heroically sings much of the opera lying down, her face grotesquely stained by tears and with what might be blood on her left hand. Hers is a very athletic performance, a perfect example of this particular singer’s uninhibited stage presence. Elle is portrayed as a woman suffering to the point of derangement; she even, from time to time, takes solace from a bottle of Jack Daniels. I believe that this goes against the spirit of the work. In Poulenc’s opera there is a single character who speaks on the phone throughout. She complains several times about being cut off, but although a phone rings to show that the second opera is about the start, in this production she has no further contact with that instrument. In fact, she has no need of it, because her lover appears, definitely the worse for wear, hardly surprising given his shlock-horror bloodstained shirt. Is he a rock musician? That might explain the electric guitar and amplifier. She now has two ex-lovers, one on the telephone and one on stage. She reassures him that she would have no idea even how to buy a revolver, yet she wields one for much of the time, her onstage ex-lover even trying to disarm her. Cocteau’s text tells us that at one point she has the telephone cord around her neck, leaving some doubt as to what finally happens to her. This was perhaps too tame for Warlikowski. Following her final declarations of love – on the phone, but with her on-stage companion beside her – she puts the pistol in her mouth and pulls the trigger. The lights go out on the two of them, splayed across what was, at the beginning of the evening, perhaps significantly, Bluebeard’s sofa.

I have devoted a lot of space to what happens on the stage. They are, after all, operas. I believe much of Warlikowski’s staging to be, at best, obstructive to an appreciation of the works and, at worst, absurd. This is all the more regrettable because from a musical point of view this was a stupendous evening in the theatre. Canadian bass-baritone, John Relyea is a superb Bluebeard, vocally strong and secure, and progressively more and more troubled as the story moves on. Ekaterina Gubanova is just as convincing as Judith, whether in love or in fear, or when she needs to resort to wheedling and persuasion. Barbara Hannigan sings the Poulenc as well as I have ever heard it sung. She is a consummate artist. Her demeanour at the end suggests that she was happy with the view of her character she so skilfully presented her on stage. The fact that I don’t share her view is hardly her problem. Both works are superbly paced by Salonen, and the orchestral playing is quite outstanding.

The applause sequence at the end of the evening is interesting to watch. John Relyea takes hold of the child’s hand and bows with him. Was the child meant to be the young Bluebeard all the time, and we never realised? The two leading ladies are enthusiastically applauded, Hannigan in particular, and the ovation for Salonen and the orchestra is, if anything, even more fervent. There are cheers, too, for Warlikowski, though anyone with ears to hear will perceive that the audience’s appreciation is far less unanimous.

William Hedley

Previous review (Blu-ray): Dave Billinge



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