on 22 June 2018
Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard's Castle are both short one-act operas, both detailing a situation between a man and a woman where there is much more going on beneath the surface than the obvious, the music of both works highly attuned to the psychological or the symbolic underpinnings. This staging from the Opera National de Paris by Krzysztof Warlikowski's proves a fascinating exploration of female psychology.
The narration at the start of Bluebeard tells us that it is the inner world that we are delving into here. In the opera, Bluebeard reluctantly and gradually uncovers the secrets of his psyche to his fourth wife, Judith. She wants to leave no door unopened as far as her husband is concerned, but is horrified by the visions of what is revealed as she is given the key to unlock each of the rooms. Despite the warnings of never going near that darkest, locked seventh room - where Bluebeard’s previous wives are revealed not to be dead, but acting out some fantasy of the captive, kept woman, alive but broken and accomplices - Judith can't help but curiously probe into things she would be better off not knowing about. She discovers more than she wants to know and the knowledge cannot be unlearnt (the musical impact here is spectacular). She too is trapped in Bluebeard's castle, as the previous wives, among whom the horrified Judith must take her place.
The set design is brilliant. The seven doors are not represented by the usual key turning ritual, but by the appearance of plexiglass cellular rooms filled with stylized objects, reminiscent of museum cases. It is a radical stage production (including film projections) and it is a test for the audience too. Elle – the unnamed protagonist of Poulenc’s opera – appears in the final scene, as the next victim, as Judith is unwillingly becoming one of the wives. There is no interval, no separation between the stories, apart from a thin partition through which the glass cases can be seen.
Bass-barytone John Relyea is ideal for the role of Bluebeard. His singing is excellent throughout, expressive of character without over-emphasis, and he reveals an utterly gorgeous speaking voice in the ‘Prologue’ to Bluebeard. Mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova, served by a passionate voice, gives a strong performance as Judith, her massive reserves of power make for thrilling moments.
Warlikowski's productions are original, striking and do often find a new way of looking at a familiar work. We expect eccentric touches and they are most obviously there in La Voix Humaine. The opera is written to be performed and sung by a single person, an unnamed woman, Elle, and sung as a one-sided conversation that takes place on the telephone. The rooms of the castle become the structure of a home where the telephone stays on the sideboard as a prop. Elle is alone in her room, waiting anxiously for a phone-call from her ex-lover. The edgy atmosphere takes on a frisson of horror when the conversation reveals that the man who has been her lover for many years is now about to be married to another woman and Elle has been contemplating suicide. The opera is choreographed as if she has not just tried to kill herself, but has also possibly shot her lover partway through the opera. Her lover is onstage, which is a new idea by Warlikowski, maybe to substitute for the concept’s lack of contradictory emotions elsewhere.
La Voix Humaine is one of the hardest tests for a soprano and Barbara Hannigan more than meets the requirements. She brings substance to this unnamed woman, at once jealous, frightened, hysterical and menacing. Her singing is excellent, heartbreaking high notes sung with ease, spot-on accuracy and pure, bell-like tone, grief-torn, and lyrically even on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. Her every gesture and inflection is perfectly judged in a way that makes her character's circumstances compelling to watch. The final moment in which Hannigan puts the barrel of a gun into her mouth is chilling, it felt like time stood still. Conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen reveals a remarkable range of orchestral detail with shattering force, without letting the orchestra overpower the singers. In La Voix Humaine, the orchestration is significantly pared down.
The filming is close-up oriented as the production is very much about individual reactions and individual emotions and close-in camera work helps emphasize that. Some of the tricks are extremely effective, as in the use of live film projection, but the background of the stage is lit or shot in such a way that makes it difficult to identify objects, however, it seems to be part of the concept. Picture and sound are both excellent.