“Loving bad men: two cautionary tales”, the subtitle for this joint production of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Poulenc’s La Voix humaine could have read. Both operas hinge on secrets withheld, love lost and skeletons in the closet. Both are monologues masquerading as dialogues, structured around moments of push and pull, misunderstandings and revelations. Indeed, Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production – and I use the singular intentionally – is ultimately a smart and modern exploration of the darker sides of the female psyche.

Barbara Hannigan (Elle) and John Relyea (Bluebeard) © Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris
Barbara Hannigan (Elle) and John Relyea (Bluebeard)
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris

Five decades may separate the two operas’ conception, and Bartók—Poulenc may seem like an unusual pairing, but the production erases any doubts as to the cleverness of their coupling. For Bluebeard’s Castle/La Voix humaine goes far beyond bringing out the parallel elements in the two storylines, and actually interweaves them: it is a daring and ultimately very convincing choice. Both operas, after all, were deeply radical for their day; both composers take rather a naturalistic approach to setting text to music. Both works, symbolist and hyperrealist, see the darkness in both magical and mundane.

Not that all of its eccentricity is flawless. Some of the tricks are extremely effective, as in the use of live film projection, some of them not as much, like the bizarre silent pre-prologue involving terribly executed magic tricks. Still, overall, Warlikowski has done a very clever job of making the two operas appear to mirror each other – even become one.

Ekaterina Gubanova (Judith) and John Relyea (Bluebeard) © Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris
Ekaterina Gubanova (Judith) and John Relyea (Bluebeard)
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris

Bluebeard is staged as a reverse Beauty and the Beast story – a man becoming uglier the more the woman knows about him. Projections from Cocteau’s film of La Belle et la Bête are used to great dramatic effect throughout, and serve as a clever link to the second opera, which owes its libretto to the French filmmaker and playwright. Esa-Pekka Salonen confidently leads the Orchestre de l’Opéra National de Paris through the score, without letting them overpower the singers. The opening of the fifth door is particularly spine-tingling.

The staging of the opera is wildly inventive, if not entirely coherent. Yes, the set design is brilliant: the glass ‘doors’ in Bluebeard’s castle are in fact sliding boxes reminiscent of museum cases – glowing heads, orchids, a television all become disquietingly unreal. Less clever is the use of repeated ‘dramatic’ close-up shots of a young boy’s face as a symbol of Bluebeard’s lost youth: there were muffled giggles throughout the audience whenever they appeared. Every other use of film throughout the production, however, was strikingly effective, including the eerie projected static noise. It serves as an effective linking device between the operas, as well as a way to break the fourth wall: shots of the Palais Garnier auditorium created a clever mirror effect, and Judith first appears in a front-row seat.

John Relyea (Bluebeard) © Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris
John Relyea (Bluebeard)
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris

Elle – the unnamed protagonist of Poulenc’s opera – appears in the final scene of Bluebeard’s Castle, 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 still be seen. It is a daring choice, and it works perfectly. Strikingly, La Voix humaine is filmed live from above, continuing the cinematographic theme, and Elle sings the whole first part sprawled on the floor. One of the most interesting directorial choices of this production is the fact that the opera is choreographed as if she has not just tried to kill herself, but has also possibly shot her lover: partway through, he appears as a bloodied figure slowly approaching and ultimately embracing her. The effect – coming after the abstract threats of Bluebeard’s castle – is chilling, and heartbreaking.

Barbara Hannigan (Elle) and Claude Bardouil (Lui) © Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris
Barbara Hannigan (Elle) and Claude Bardouil (Lui)
© Bernd Uhlig | Opéra National de Paris

In short, the skilful dovetailing of the two operas is quite stunningly executed. Both are also fabulously cast. John Relyea endows Bluebeard with a rich, gravelly bass and an utterly gorgeous speaking voice. As Judith, Ekaterina Gubanova’s strong and lustrous mezzo sounded, at times, somewhat clouded, but shone in her moments of passion. One caveat nonetheless: though, as singers, they are both excellent fits for their parts, as actors, they felt somewhat lacking in chemistry. Although his Bluebeard is the perfect mix of hangdog and beast, and her Judith comes across very convincingly as both vampish and adoring, their stage presence together seemed somewhat stilted.

Meanwhile, Barbara Hannigan is simply extraordinary in the Poulenc. Brittle and twitchy, her character manages to sing delicately, lyrically whilst appearing on the very edge of a nervous breakdown. A true tragédienne, she switches from tenderness to violence to distraction in an instant – her “je deviens folle!” a gorgeous cry. This is a soloist at the peak of her career. Her high notes are heartbreaking, her pronunciation is flawless; her timbre shades from bell-clear to dark and warm. As she sang her last, hoarse “t’aime” into the barrel of a gun, it seemed the Palais Garnier had stopped breathing.