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Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Poulenc’s La voix humaine are not customary bedfellows, but in Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production (filmed in Paris, 2015) they are performed together – and I mean production in the singular; the two pieces are thematically intertwined and staged without a break.

It starts with Bluebeard and Elle (from La Voix) performing a magic act, watched by Judith (from Bluebeard) from the theatre’s stalls. Judith then vamps her way onstage, a sterile modernist glass-and-steel space, where a psycho- sexual power struggle develops between her and Bluebeard, Judith more often than not taking the emotional ascendance, Bluebeard visibly wilts as a series of glass-panelled rooms display each secret, finally revealing his ageing wives, who then join him in coercing Judith into their ranks. Emotional surrender? Sexual abuse? Stockholm syndrome?

Videos intermittently show an increasingly distressed boy, presumably Bluebeard, and clips from Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, hinting at a psychological backstory: this is reinforced by having a clip of the Cocteau film run before La voix humaine begins, itself adapted by the composer from Cocteau’s play. Having already broken the fourth wall, Warlikowski continues in the Poulenc, with Elle onstage, simultaneously being filmed from above as she descends into psychological meltdown, joined by the bloody corpse of the lover that she may, or may not, have shot.

John Relyea’s rich bass and Ekaterina Gubanova’s refulgent mezzo have no problems with the Bartók, and depict their emotional development with precision. Likewise Barbara Hannigan as Elle, whose physical commitment is so extreme that one wonders how she can possibly sustain a vocal line; but she does, with ease. All three are verbally clear, helped by Esa-Pekka Salonen’s detailed conducting, which maximizes Bartók’s glittering orchestration without covering the singers, and supports Hannigan through Poulenc’s more refined soundworld. Complex, multi-layered, challenging – seriously worth watching.

Francis Muzzu Read the full review on Agora Classica

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