Bartok - Bluebeard's Castle / Poulenc - La Voix Humaine

ONP Garnier, Thursday December 10 2015

Conductor: Esa-Pekka Salonen. Production: Krzysztof Warlikowski. Sets and Costumes: Malgorzata Szczesniak. Lighting: Felice Ross. Video: Denis Guéguin. Duke Bluebeard: John Relyea. Judith: Ekaterina Gubanova. Elle: Barbara Hannigan. Lui: Claude Bardouil. Paris Opera Orchestra.

Two preliminary thoughts:
  1. In the 80s, every opera house needed a flimsy silk curtain that could be whisked away in a flash as the music struck up, sometimes getting caught in the scenery and pulling it down. Later, they all had to stock a bombed-out concrete bunker, plenty of combat gear and a dozen black leather greatcoats. Last week (I've been away on business, which is why I'm writing this so late) it occurred to me that they can now probably chuck out their silk curtains and bunkers to make room for a set of large glass cases on wheels: every self-respecting new production uses some.
  2. There has been a great deal of heated hoo-ha over the past few weeks about the Paris Opera's decision to remove (without applying for permission to alter a listed building) and, it emerges, destroy original partitions between boxes at the Palais Garnier, leaving said boxes "gaping" toothlessly. That's where I found myself the other night for Bluebeard's Castle, and I must say the effect, at the moment (the work isn't finished) looks ghastly: gashed crimson brocade and clunky, crimson-painted mechanisms crossing the ceilings - the equipment needed, I suppose, to slip new, removable partitions back in between performances.
But on to Bluebeard and La Voix Humaine.

"Familiarity," writes my favourite author Ivy Compton-Burnett, who had a great deal to say, most of it grimly hilarious, about marriage and families, "breeds contempt, and ought to breed it. It is through familiarity that we get to know each other." To cut a potentially long story short, Krzysztof Warlikowski knits together the evening's two works, performed without an interval (so I couldn't have left even if I'd wanted to, which I didn't) by simply following the cycle of human partnerships: infatuation (illusion); discovery and familiarity (disillusion); separation - in this pessimistic case, through murder and suicide.

During the magnificent Bard's Prologue, Bluebeard is already on stage in a dramatic cape (recalling Dracula), performing shaky magic tricks involving the usual rabbits, doves, and the levitation of his tottering, possibly drunk or drugged assistant, wig askew, who remains largely unimpressed.

"The music starts,
The flame leaps up and up.
Let the play begin!
The curtains of our eyelids all are raised.
And when they fall, Sirs,
Give us your applause. 
‘Tis an old castle, as ancient as the tale.
Hearken ye, one and all. 
Hearken ye."

The Palais Garnier is mirrored, in black and white, on stage and Judith rises, spotlit, from the front row of the stalls and crosses a bridge over the pit to the stage. The opera starts, in its single set: high walls of glass tiles, with a long Ruhlmann-style sofa on the left and a matching drinks cabinet on the right. There is a fair amount of whisky-drinking in this production, as a badgering Judith, in green satin and red hair, forces revelations out of the less strong-willed Duke.

The seven "doors" are museum-style glass cases, gliding in silently, and to their left, large projections of the bloody-nosed face of a pretty little boy hint at a sad and possibly violent childhood. The torture chamber is an old-fashioned bathtub aglow with red light (Warlikowski is often closer to the libretto than his detractors admit). The armory contains a display of swords. In the treasury, the jewels are worn by a row of glowing golden busts. The garden is a case of orchids. For the Kingdom, the light streams in from a TV set showing the Beast from Cocteau's Beauty and the... (a neat link to the Poulenc later in the evening) But the Kingdom is perhaps an illusion - no more than the glass "snowball" of a white mountain brandished by Bluebeard.

The pool of tears is shed, it seems, by the child Bluebeard himself, already dressed in a mini-magician's cape and cradling a white rabbit. Finally, the three former wives appear, in glamorous, glittering haute couture, to fondle Bluebeard on the sofa and at last Judith joins them in their glass-walled cage... temporarily.

After a brief passage of static noise, Poulenc replaces Bartok and a new Judith, Elle, emerges from the depths of the set, teetering, as Warlikowski's heroines often do, especially when played by Barbara Hannigan, on the highest of heels in slender black trousers and a slinky top, her make-up streaked down her face, revolver in hand. There's a telephone on the drinks cabinet (the basic set hasn't changed), but she never lifts the receiver.

As the work progresses, Lui, somehow resembling Bluebeard, staggers in from the rear through his glass-walled den (with a TV set showing the Beast from Cocteau's Beauty and the... an electric guitar and his dog, in this case an Alsatian, that's usually omitted), his shirt-front drenched in blood and eventually, to cut a potentially long story short, dies before Elle puts the gun in her mouth and the lights go out.

Though the usual intelligence and coherency were there, this was a simpler production than others I've seen by Warlikowski. Some critics liked the simplification but I quite enjoy picking apart the usual multiple references, so though for once the director wasn't booed, a I felt a bit short-changed. Also, having read glowing reviews of the whole shebang, I wondered if I hadn't hit the run's vocal off night. John Relyea was a decent but uncharismatic Bluebeard. Ekaterina Gubanova sang with a sumptuous, richly-timbred voice but was nearly inaudible over the organ and orchestra at at the crucial fifth door. And while Barbara Hannigan's performance was dramatically and physically as remarkable as ever, including an impressive, teeth-rattling fall from the sofa to the boards, her basically lyric voice, bringing a new, expressive brittleness to the part, quite un-French in sound, was also surprisingly under-powered even in the Palais Garnier's relatively reasonable dimensions.

Salonen's Bartok was definitely not late- or post-romantic, more analytical and expressionistic. The orchestra sounded slightly shaky at the start to me, but picked up as the evening went on. And while I was a tiny touch disappointed, my neighbour was clearly quite shaken by Hannigan's Elle, and the audience clapped and cheered louder and longer than usual, even for Warlikowski. So, with Moses und Aron and now this convincing double-bill, Paris Opera director Stéphane Lissner, though he may have vandalised Garnier's house, has already chalked up two striking hits.

Maestro Wenarto ends La Voix Humaine.


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