Theatre of the Now: A kékszakállú herceg vára & La Voix humaine at the Opéra de Paris

Bartók – A kékszakállú herceg vára

Kékszakállú – John Relyea
Judit – Yekaterina Gubanova

Poulenc – La Voix humaine

Elle – Barbara Hannigan

Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Esa-Pekka Salonen

Stage director – Krzysztof Warlikowski

Opéra national de Paris, Palais Garnier, Paris.  Thursday, December 10th, 2015.

We know that Krzysztof Warlikowski is a director who never takes a work for granted.  I’ve had the pleasure of seeing another two of his shows over the past year – his revelatory Onegin in Munich, with two central performances of incredible, unforgettable power, and his Don Giovanni in Brussels.  That Don Giovanni was unlike any I had seen before and rethought the work as a parable of addiction.  It was surprising then tonight that his readings of both works felt somewhat more conventional.  We had the contents of the doors in Bluebeard’s castle clearly laid out for us and the journey of Elle through her phone call was clearly mapped.

Barbara Hannigan © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris
Barbara Hannigan © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

The stage opens with Bluebeard performing some very impressive magic tricks.  A lady, later revealed to be Elle, is made to however in the air (impressively done, no wires were evident) and Bluebeard conjures up a dove and a rabbit.  Judit is watching from the audience, captivated by him.  As we proceed through the opera, each of the doors opens to reveal their contents in glass cases as if Bluebeard was living in a museum rather than a home – we see the armoury, the jewels and a garden.  Interestingly, the fifth door reveals Bluebeard’s kingdom as a television set, suggesting that his charisma and his ability to be a polygamist are as a result of his promotion through mass media and not necessarily due to the man himself.  This was also partly intimated by his onstage persona, I found it difficult to believe that such an initially strong lady as Judit would fall for him.  And yet as she disappears with the other wives, she seems resigned to her fate, unwilling to fight.

John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris
John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

In La Voix humaine the audience is made to feel as voyeurs.  A camera focuses in on Elle as she talks, broadcasting her close-ups on a large screen which dominates the stage and gives us a very raw impression of the pain that she feels.  This was thrillingly performed by Barbara Hannigan who gave absolutely everything she had, vocally and dramatically, to the role combined with immaculately clear French diction.  She sang in some incredibly awkward positions but thanks to the camera work the impact was doubled due to us seeing both her body lying on the couch and her facial impressions on the screen.  If only Warlikowski had continued the opera in that way.  During the second half of the piece the set revealed a gentleman, Lui, with a bloodied shirt who interacted physically with Elle during the remainder of the opera.  Given the strength of Hannigan’s performance, I felt that it distracted from rather than enhanced the storytelling.  In a way, it exemplified what I think was the major issue with the show which was that it laid everything out for the spectator and didn’t allow us to make up our own minds.  Bartók’s piece opens with a speech about the theatre of the mind while the Poulenc sets half a conversation.  What both works have in common is that much is left to the audience to plug the gaps and I wish Warlikowski had left more ambiguity in his storytelling to match that of each work.

Yekaterina Gubanova & John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris
Yekaterina Gubanova & John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Musically we were given very fine performances by a very strong cast.  Yekaterina Gubanova sang Judit in her lustrous mezzo with an easy line and rich, well-upholstered tone.  The voice was even throughout the range though I wish it had opened up a little more towards the top.  One thing I also wish she had paid more attention to was the diction.  I missed a sense of her really using those open Magyar vowels to focus the tone and some of her consonants sounded distinctly Slavonic.  Despite that, it’s a very healthy and easily-produced sound and she is a commanding actress who really threw herself into the role.  John Relyea’s Bluebeard was very well sung in his inky-black bass.  His isn’t the richest of voices but the beauty of the tone and the way he caressed the musicality of the language was much appreciated.  He was a dominating stage presence and the way he charted his journey from charismatic magician to implacable polygamist was extremely impressive.

Barbara Hannigan © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris
Barbara Hannigan © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

Barbara Hannigan’s Elle was sensational.  Her musicianship is never in doubt – even singing when being carried in the air, she was always bang in tune.  She gave us a masterclass in operatic acting going from imperiousness to despair to nervousness to devastation.  Within the space of half an hour it seemed that she demonstrated the complete gamut of human emotions through her physicality and her singing.  The role does sound slightly on the low side for her but she carried the declamatory writing well.  Esa-Pekka Salonen’s conducting brought out the rhythmic incisiveness in Bartók’s score and really made the seventh door feel like the centrepiece of the work.  He brought out so many of the melodies that are hidden within the orchestration that one doesn’t always get to hear yet paradoxically, despite the strength of the rhythms, I felt that pacing sagged somewhat.  The Poulenc however was well-paced and sensitively accompanied to the events on stage.  The Opéra orchestra played extremely well, the delicacy of the Lake of Tears scene was extremely impressive and the sound opened up thrillingly at the fifth door aided by the impressive organ used.  The quality of the orchestral playing was never in doubt.

John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris
John Relyea © Bernd Uhlig / Opéra national de Paris

The strength of the vocal and dramatic performances we were given tonight was outstanding, capped by an exhilarating incarnation of a one-woman show.  However, I left not completely convinced by the staging.  I am a great admirer of Warlikowski’s work and believe him to be a director who genuinely has something important to say.  On this occasion I just wish that he had left more to the imagination, that he had given us as audience members the opportunity to fill in the blanks for ourselves.  There were interesting themes of the influence of mass media and Bluebeard’s life not being completely his own but that part of the show felt somewhat underdeveloped to me.  It was undoubtedly a highly cogent and convincing reading of both texts, Warlikowski had completely convinced the cast of his visions and was thrillingly acted by all on stage.  Musically, it was a very satisfying evening, one certainly worthy of this great venue.


  1. A Hungarian speaker here said of Gubanova’s diction that it was “the worst thing done by a Russian to Hungary since 1956”. Ironically that was in a double bill with Erwartung with a Hungarian speaking mezzo singing the Woman.

    • The thing is Hungarian is such a beautiful language to sing in & has an in-built innate musicality. Such a shame that Miss Gubanova’s diction did not do justice to the quality of her instrument

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