A tale of madness, love and death

Interview with Christian Longchamp, dramaturg

A tale of madness, love and death

"I want to tell a tale..." Thus begins Bluebeard's Castle and this production by Krzysztof Warlikowski, bringing together Béla Bartók's opera and La Voix Humaine by Francis Poulenc. A phantasmagorical odyssey at the crossroads of dream and nightmare, blurring the boundaries between the conscious and the unconscious for performers and spectators alike.

Krzysztof Warlikowski’s production links the symbolist atmosphere of Béla Bartok with the realism of Francis Poulenc. How were two such aesthetically opposed works brought together?

       It all began with Stéphane Lissner’s desire to programme Bluebeard’s Castle by Bartok at Opera Garnier, in the wake of Schönberg’s Moses und Aron at Bastille: his grand plan to begin his first mandate at the head of the Paris Opera with two key works by two key composers of the 20th century. Having persuaded Esa-Pekka Salonen to return to the Paris Opera to conduct the production, we had to find a second opera to complement the Bartok, which barely lasts an hour. We considered various possibilities. It was Krzysztof Warlikowski’s idea to present two works one after the other without a break, like an excursion into the female psyche, and that led us to La Voix Humaine. What interested Krzysztof in Bluebeard was not so much the character of Bluebeard as that of Judith, so we had to find a counterpart for this extremely passionate woman, prisoner of Bluebeard’s magnetism who, lured by her desire, always wants to know more. Her feelings for this man lead her to the brink of her inner abyss and to a danger of which she is finally less victim than mistress. Whether in theatre or opera, Krzysztof is fascinated by borderline female characters, those who make their mark on the world through their singularity or their passionate commitment, like Medea, Lulu, Donna Anna and Donna Elvira…

Can one talk about complementarity between the characters of Judith and Elle?

Setting aside the question of sisterhood, they are clearly linked. In a programme without an interval like this one, in which there is continuity between the two pieces, the second character is bound to be underpinned by the first. This plunging into Elle’s imagination is thus enriched by the journey into Judith’s inner self that precedes it.

Ekaterina Gubanova (Judith), John Relyea (Le Duc), Le Château de Barbe-Bleue, Palais Garnier, 2015
Ekaterina Gubanova (Judith), John Relyea (Le Duc), Le Château de Barbe-Bleue, Palais Garnier, 2015 © Bernd Uhlig / OnP

You evoke the danger to which Judith exposes herself and which, in one sense, she ultimately overcomes. Now in Bartok, unlike Perrault’s tale or the play by Maeterlinck, it is Judith herself who embodies danger. Was making her a menacing figure a way of linking the two works dramatically?

It’s possible. In any case, it was out of the question to portray these two women as victims, even though Elle commits her excesses under the compulsion of her desire to leave the man with whom she is madly infatuated. This madness gives rise to feelings whose fascination lies in their contradictory nature. In this sense, the work can be read as a modern fairy tale that examines all the facets of passionate love. On no account, however, is it a tale in which the woman is victimised.

Unlike traditional adaptations of Cocteau’s text?

If you compare different versions of this magnificent piece, you meet some very different women. In Rossellini’s film, Anna Magnani is a victim, whereas Ingrid Bergman in the Swedish television version displays a certain inner strength. Krzysztof’s version brings to it something else again. It can give the impression of departing from Cocteau and Poulenc’s intentions, yet it also seeks to flesh out the character of Elle, to complexify this person who lives in different worlds: those of memory, of an impossible future and, obviously, of the imagination.

Without revealing too much, this production seems particularly attentive to the text. The stage directions at the beginning set the action in a bedroom and a murder scene; Elle is comparing the telephone to a weapon…

That phrase and the stage directions certainly resonated in our thinking… But let’s bear in mind the fact that when Cocteau qualifies the bedroom as a murder scene, he is quite clearly referring to the murder committed by the man, whose attitude and the revelations he makes to the woman push her to suicide.

Barbara Hannigan (Elle), La Voix humaine, Palais Garnier, 2015
Barbara Hannigan (Elle), La Voix humaine, Palais Garnier, 2015 © Bernd Uhlig / OnP

The violence inherent in the two works, and more generally in human existence, is particularly emphasised in this production…

Yes, and that is thanks to the acting capacities of the female singers. Krzysztof considers the performers to be of primordial importance. Each role is conceived for a particular individual. In the case of La Voix humaine, the character has been developed with Barbara Hannigan. Her limitless qualities as an actress have allowed the production to attain its ultimate intensity. The absolute confidence that she has in her director, by whom she feels supported and protected, has thus led her to put herself at risk both physically and vocally. But I haven’t forgotten the important role played by Esa-Pekka Salonen during the preparatory work and particularly during the rehearsals with orchestra. The sensitivity and perspicacity of this extraordinary conductor have been essential in finding the right balance between the stage and the orchestral pit.

You qualified the production earlier as a fairy tale. The image of a deserted Palais Garnier at the beginning seems conducive to this and projects the audience into a world of illusions, an imaginary world reinforced by the illusionist’s act that begins the performance.

Absolutely. And just as a magic trick must remain mysterious, so we must not reveal all to the spectator. S/he must be able to navigate freely through the production and make his/her own poetic correlations between the two works. Has Elle killed her lover? Is she dreaming of killing him? Is the character who levitates at the beginning connected to that of Barbara at the end? The production has to remain open-ended. That is also what makes it a fairy tale. It is Krzysztof’s aim that, at the end of the performance, the spectators leave with their heads teeming with sensations and images, like a reader closing a book of stories.

Le Château de Barbe-Bleue/La Voix humaine - Barbara Hannigan, Ekaterina Gubanova, John Relyea, Palais Garnier, 2015
Le Château de Barbe-Bleue/La Voix humaine - Barbara Hannigan, Ekaterina Gubanova, John Relyea, Palais Garnier, 2015 © Bernd Uhlig / OnP

At the end of the performance, one also has the impression of having watched a fairy tale about marital failure. Is that something you wanted to underline?

That was not our intention. The excessiveness of the feelings expressed is of extreme violence, death lies at the end of the journey but, in the last analysis, does all that signify failure? If Judith or Elle had been able to look back on their past, would they have considered themselves like that? Nothing is less certain. Without the excessiveness that consumes them, their stories would most certainly not have been liveable.

Related articles

Subscribe to the magazine

Sign up to receive news from
Octave Magazine by email.


Back to top