La voix humaine/Bluebeard’s Castle (Wiesbaden, 14 June 2015)


Hessisches Staatstheater is a small continental venue with circular balconies, decorated in such a way that a Baroque opera would feel right at home. Nonetheless I liked the intimate atmosphere which fit these two one act operas that rely so heavily on singers’ acting chops.

La voix humaine | Poulenc

Woman: Julia Migenes
Conductor: Zsolt Hamar
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden | Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
Director: Thorleifur Orn Arnarsson

Yesterday’s thoughts. Relationships, the 20th century way. At first sight women seem to come out the worse for it. But whilst doing my intellectual best with La voix humaine last week it occurred to me that the woman does not necessarily die at the end. Watching Denise Duval talking about her and Poulenc each going through a breakup during the creation of the opera (with Cocteau basing the libretto on his own) reminded me that a work of art can be the expression of a very intense moment rather than a literal account. Thinking “I’d die if you leave me” when a relationship is shaky is quite common, yet most of us manage to survive this experience more than once.

This production. It turns out I was right in thinking the end of the phone conversation does not have to mean death. Or at least, not the character’s death. The phone, though, ends up dramatically smashed to the floor – nice touch getting the receiver to hang below the stage. I wonder if it was rehearsed that way.

casinopondMaybe I should start by saying that I’ve been having a ridiculously great time here in Wiesbaden so I was super pliant this afternoon. First off: the weather! When I left London it was resolutely raining. Upon reaching Germany it was cloudy and rather breezy. Wiesbaden = hot and sunny and pleasantly fragrant with honeysuckle in the air. I hiked all morning up and down these charming and quiet roads, then I hired a row boat in the park behind the Casino and got semi drenched from the giant water fountain in the middle of the pond. I should like 19th century opera a lot more considering my idea of fun is right out of a Victorian novel 😉

But I was here for very serious business indeed. So I was a bit apprehensive that I would feel bored with La voix humaine. I wasn’t. This production did not go down a screechy route. So, I was thinking later (whilst back in the park, strolling), 20th century opera all right, but done the 21st century way. It was, in fact, often humorous. Perhaps the best thing about Migenes’ performance was the way she managed to bring out the French-ness of the libretto. Forgive me if I am wrong, but what I call French-ness is a sort of rational spirit in the face of the worst situation. Where, say, the Germans would get super angsty, the French will go “oh, well”, shrug and pick themselves up. When I heard this in the past it was, interestingly, done the angsty way. Seeing Duval in that interview I thought “this woman isn’t angsty and yet Poulenc wrote it for her…”

One of the funniest things was that the woman had not one but several phones “stashed” around the house. It was almost like she had a phone for every mood or each phone represented a side of her personality. Very interesting. This also looked funny whenever the phone rang and she had to decide on which one to answer or when the line was cut yet again and she eagerly restored them all whilst waiting for her ex to call her back (usually she’d throw the phone whenever the call got interrupted, which was all the time). Generally, far from a raw drama, hers looked acted (intentionally, I mean). This was rather an artful woman not a suicidal one. Good call, seeing as the opera was this time paired with Bartok’s allegorical exploration of power and intimacy within relationships.

A kékszakállú herceg vára | Bartok

Bluebeard: Gerd Grochowski
Judit: Vesselina Kasarova
Conductor: Zsolt Hamar
Hessisches Staatsorchester Wiesbaden | Hessisches Staatstheater Wiesbaden
Director: Uwe Eric Laufenberg

Yesterday’s thoughts. Why is Judit so attracted to this mysterious character? Why does Bluebeard need her? Why is she so keen on changing his world? You’d think she’d be fine with it if she likes him so much. But “women love bad boys but they always try to change their partners”. Also: curiosity killed the cat.

From the libretto we glean a few things: Judit has run off with Bluebeard against her family’s wishes; Bluebeard is charismatic and behaves in a highly manipulative manner; Judit mistakenly thinks she’s in control of the situation until it’s too late. It’s a 20th century version of Persephone and Hades – the women in his collection literally give life to his world. This Persephone has agency but ultimately it’s still Hades who calls the shots (on his turf).

Judit does have power insofar as Bluebeard needs her. Without women his world would wither and die. What she can’t do is change who he is. I wonder if things would’ve been different (happy) had Judit not wanted to “get to know him better”. It’s only natural to want to know your partner but it’s true that pushing someone’s boundaries of intimacy can have disastrous consequences for the both involved. Why would someone so obsessed with privacy want a nosy woman?

I also wonder if Bluebeard keeps looking for another wife in hopes of finding one who could accept him as he is. Judit initially appears open minded (she refuses to believe the rumours about him) but is she really? When she discovers his deepest secret she turns very cold towards him. It’s almost as if she was more into solving the mystery than loving him. But that’s true of relationships: familiarity breeds contempt. Eventually the very things you find quaint yet endearing about someone become the very things you despise. The progress of the opera mirrors the life of a relationship: from irrational attraction to co-dependency and emotional death.

This production. There is practically no blood. When Judit repeatedly demands to have the doors opened, Bluebeard shows her “the horrors” on his laptop. So I started to wonder how much of this was in Judit’s mind and how much was really Bluebeard’s doing.

It will probably come as no surprise that VK’s Judit was no demure damsel at any point. I later overheard this exchange:

opera goer 1: I thought she was gonna kill him.
opera goer 2: she wasn’t happy. He did nice things for her yet she was suspicious.
opera goer 1: you would be!

When the opera starts Bluebeard and Judit ascend to Bluebeard’s pad in a lift. I think it’s interesting that they go up when in the libretto it is suggested they go down (maybe a bit Captain Obvious). A lift “clock” numbered 1 to 7 is showing 1. At the end of the opera the “clock” had reset itself back to 1 and Bluebeard takes the lift back down. So it wasn’t all Judit’s imagination.

There is an interesting moment where Judit tries to see for herself what Bluebeard is hiding by tampering with his briefcase. When Bluebeard returns to the room she’s all “hi, honey, come sit here with me so we can make out and maybe you can share a secret or two [double grin, leg, cleavage etc.]”. When she finally makes him show her (on the laptop) what’s behind door #1 (the torture chamber) she closes the lid then opens it again half in fascination, half in a sort of clinical curiosity.

Another pivotal moment in understanding VK’s Judit came when she realises, after the 3rd door (here represented by a box of jewels) that the jewels are also tainted by blood. In the libretto is says she’s “alarmed” but VK looked like she meant to say “jewels, he’s trying to modify me; must keep my wits about me”.

The unlocking of the 5th door is the central moment in the opera. It’s where Bluebeard decides to open up to Judit and she guesses his most dreadful secret. I thought Hamar did a very good job with the mounting intensity and the subsequent moment of clarity. Also good one Bartok, it’s truly a cool bit of music. Here VK had the chance to raise above the full on orchestra and managed to make herself heard without damaging yours truly’s ears (I was in the second row). An interesting and very welcome feat, considering what I have recently suffered at the “hands” of other singers… Thank goodness for mezzos and basses.

At this point the director opened up the claustrophobic space by receeding the side walls and having a landscape projection in the background. Very cool combo of music and visuals. This was supposedly Bluebeard’s land but we know it’s his soul. It looks magnificent on first glance but alas, Judit is now too sure of what she knows (that she can’t change him and she can’t escape).

This is where she confronts him and what opera goer 1 was referring to when he meant VK looked like she was gonna kill him. She got very physical all right. Vocally she was her usual lyric self, which is just as well, I didn’t particularly like it in the past when singers got shrill. Her top notes were under control, there are no low notes I can remember and her middle is always beautiful.

Interestingly, Bluebeard looked emotionally tortured by her vigorous accusations and, in a fit of self defense, stabbed her. This was the most emotion we got from Bluebeard in all opera. Mostly he looked cryptically poker faced but mild mannered and almost romantic when wooing her with flowers. At this point, coupled with my suspicion that Judit was unnecessarily paranoid, I felt for him, wondering if he didn’t lose it because he loved her, made the effort to open up to her beyond his usual limits only to have her not understand him after all. In that sense the ending is a let down. Is Bluebeard simply a serial killer after all… but before we got to the end of it all, this climax worked very well for me: engaging and powerful in a subtle way (subtle musically, I mean). Grochowski’s warm bass sounded lovely in Bluebeard’s “tune of seduction”, which is where it matters. I can still remember it.

And still, after he stabbed her and she looked quite dead, Bluebeard kept going on about his brides behind the last door, who came out in ghostly fashion and then lo and behold, Judit wasn’t so dead after all. Or was she? She looked alive but rather zombified, which fits my idea of emotional death within relationships. If she couldn’t change him she lost her purpose. Maybe women try to change their partners because other venues of changing the world are traditionally restricted for them? In this case I think it’s who changes whom and whoever loses is lost. It definitely felt like a competition of willpower and cunning and the sex like manipulation on both sides.

Where I was a bit worried it was going to be a gloomy afternoon it ended up thought provoking. By the end I wanted more phones hurled around and more action in the torture chamber 😉 with a row boat and a water fountain thrown in for good measure.

Random stuff:


gorgeous villa on a quiet and steep street

in case you were wondering how VK fared in Hungarian, I got about the same number of words (3.2) as when she lets loose in French 😉 I’m saying this as someone quite familiar with the language.

as soon as Bluebeard started singing, my seatmates, who looked very “respectable” otherwise and behaved naturally during La voix humaine, began talking loudly (about whatever was happening on stage, at least). I was thinking WTF, yo? but I was too embarrassed to start an argument. Luckily a chap in the front row shushed them angrily.

Hessisches Staatstheater has a shop which sells random shit like fur coats and wooden Nativity scenes (in June!?), so no opera magnet for me. Also no opera adverts round town. However, it’s such a cute venue I urge all and sundry to visit it sometime. There will be pictures when I get back home.


About dehggial

Mozart/Baroque loving red dragon

Posted on June 15, 2015, in 20th century, basses, french opera, live performances, mezzos & contraltos, sopranos and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. ahhh, this sounds so suspenseful! now you got me jealous from the description of storylines + stagings.. in combo with the scenery + weather descriptions! sounds like a really wonderful trip! 🙂
    truly, i love the phone descriptions + laptops!! the exact kind of staging i crave, sounds really thought provoking.. (in huge contrast to the pg-7 i endured today)
    ps- 2nd row? 😉

    • I was saying to my hosts that it’s always worth seeing opera in Germany for that very reason (you get an interesting staging). I thought it was very stylish and an excellent trip all around.

      of course second row 😉 it was no more expensive than what I normally pay for lower slips at ROH.

      • the thing i love about state-sponsored arts in Germany . Don’t you love to have hosts that you can babble your enthusiasm to? 😀 I constantly explain to friends here also that i pay typically 17-40€ for seats i could not imagine here in the US, never mind the huge plane tix 🙂 .

        (currently writing up my crying of “traditional” staging here.. though judging by the negative language i better go to bed and let it sit.. did clarify 1 word though from your prev comment.. and am still thinking about what you described in this post, so envious, what a contrast.. )

        • I love state sponsorship of the arts! Also I have to say thanks for the airbnb shout. This flat is ace, really pretty and well equipped + the hosts are very chill. I said to them opera pending they can expect me back any time.

          I am very curious about your kiddy staging now 😉 I hope you’ve let it all out! (was the music/singing decent at least?)

  2. Oh, gosh, I hope they are at least making a house tape of this double-header (but, please, please a commercial release would be wonderful). 🙂 Thanks a bunch for posting your thought of it, Dehggial! I’ve gotta start pestering the San Diego Opera to do Bluebeard. After all, with a cast of two, it’s gotta fit the current low-budget requirement!

    • Pester them, it’s a good one 🙂 though these one act operas tend to be hard to sell. Don’t know if the local Wiesbaden theatre does these types of things but one has to live in hope, eh? Or at least in hope she’ll sing this role again somewhere.

      …and you’re welcome 🙂 I’ve had a ball!

  3. I was there too yesterday! But contrary to you, I didn’t like Migenes’ performance at all. First, her French sounds quite ridiculous, too much rolling ‘rrr’s, there’s no Frenchman or -woman that speaks that way. Second, her performance was way too hysterical. All the psychological tension is already in the text and the music, there’s no need to overdo it like she did. And third, her voice is often shrill and ugly. I don’t mean the parlando passages (although she was overdoing that too!), but often there was a rough edge to her singing that’s a sign of a misused voice.

    Also, I’m not sure Poulenc needs this much staging! I once saw a performance of this music with only a very small high desk with a phone on top of it as the only stage prop. Way more impressive than what I saw and heard yesterday.

    • I agree her French was far from good but then so is most non-French singers’ from what I’ve heard so far. You rearely at all see a non-native get the hang of it. So on that account I’m prepared to give singers a lot of leeway.

      I’m surprised you found her performance hysterical, I’ve certainly found others more so.

      True about the voice, also I would add that from where I sat she often couldn’t make herself heard over the orchestra. But I wasn’t going to go into the second bit as sometimes that’s a case of house acoustics. The first can be a matter of taste. Shrill in this case might not be the worst thing.

      We have to agree to disagree about the staging.

  4. oh wow, those photos are gorgeous!!! that’s your airb?!! did you forget the camera in the venue? 🙂

    • hahaha, yes, that was the airbnb! 😉 I didn’t take the camera to the venue, I went hands in pockets, lalala. Too bad, it was totally old school inside, with portraits of composers on the ceiling and whatnot. Very cosy and tiny (well, sort of, wiki says the capacity is 1041). The foyer was almost the size of my lounge.

    • cool! I don’t know if you can get a proper idea from those short clips, though, even about the phones. That 5th door moment was very powerful (and that note she held longer). Also the nice’n’creepy beginning is something you need to hear live.

      • yes, fine fine, rub it in for those of us who can’t see live 😉
        actually i think even with these very brief glimpses you get quite an impression for the music and the mood.. and that last scene with all the ghosts? her voice seems to fit the music very nicely too!

  5. she swapped out of this into something much lighter with smashing success tonight am told 🙂 , in hamburg, as Helene, a role i’d looove to see her in too..

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