BARTÓK Le chateau de Barbe Bleue POULENC La Voix Humaine (DVD)
This isn’t ‘a unique merging of two one-act operas’ as the packaging breathlessly exclaims. It’s a decent staging of Bartók’s work followed by a poor staging of Poulenc’s.
We have seen directors fade Il tabarro into Suor Angelica with distinct success but there is no such sleight of hand or narrative revelation on display here. Barbara Hannigan’s Elle appears in the dying seconds of the Bartók but arrives too late to react to any of that work’s narrative proceedings and is aesthetically divorced from it in how she moves and what she wears.
Beyond having a TV spool footage of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast during Bluebeard (Cocteau was Poulenc’s librettist for La voix humaine – geddit?), no clear attempt is made to underline parallels between the two works. Emphasis on the word ‘clear’: while I’m sure certain individuals could conjure up complex literary-philosophical justifications and parallels, the net effect for people who turn up to an opera house is confusing and self-regarding, especially when we’re given a revisionist production of Poulenc’s work that misfires of its own accord. Pity those audience members at the Palais Garnier who weren’t even offered the time-out of an interval.
On DVD, Bluebeard goes well enough. The Duke as an end-of-the-pier magician luring Judith up from the stalls in the prologue sets a resonant tone and underlines the parochial horror of it all. Ekaterina Gubanova sings Judith with thrilling fortitude and strides about the stage like a harlot; John Relyea’s is a warm-voiced and increasingly troubled Bluebeard who works effectively opposite her. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts with the edge and ear for colour that you’d expect. The seventh room reveals glamorous sex slaves, alive but broken and complicit.
La voix humaine is built of entirely different stuff but despite Barbara Hannigan’s compulsively agile vocal performance – Salonen is the perfect partner to her here, too – her semi-choreographed physical caricature of the woman bypasses all the mystery, pain and deception of this half-story and, in its physical semaphoring, misses almost all of its contradictory emotions. If the intention was to play it as an actual monologue prompted by psychological breakdown, then the technical references to the telephone, written in by Cocteau and Poulenc, torpedo it.
We know that sort of thing doesn’t bother Krzysztof Warlikowski and, as so often, he has to superimpose a new idea to substitute for those he has chosen to ignore. In this case, it is to have the woman’s partner onstage, fatally wounded perhaps by her gunshot, lolling around the place and with a look so French it becomes a caricature too. In both pieces, much of the stage is lit or shot in such a way that makes it difficult to decipher objects that aren’t in the immediate foreground. Given Warlikowski’s penchant for naff, disposable symbolism, that might be a good thing. It certainly stands in direct contrast to the conviction of the musical performances.