Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Teatro San Carlo - Bluebeard’s Castle & La voix humaine - 05/26/24

Bluebeard’s Castle 
Composer: Bela Bartok 
Librettist: Bela Balazs 
Conductor: Edward Gardner 
Producer/Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski 
Elina Garanca: Judith 
John Relya: Duke Bluebeard

La voix humaine 
Composer: Francis Poulenc 
Librettist: Jean Cocteau 
Conductor: Edward Gardner 
Producer/Director: Krzysztof Warlikowski 
Barbara Hannigan: Elle

As my extended residency in Naples is unfolding nicely with plenty of business and pleasure, including a mild but discernible earthquake right before my otherwise quiet birthday to keep things exciting, it was also further enhanced by the temporary presence of my host Vittorio’s French cousin, who, rather implausibly, had turned out to be a former summertime neighbor of my mom’s (We do live in a small world, after all). 
Being another dedicated opera buff, Michèle had strategically planned her visit according to the Teatro San Carlo’s opera season, where we had found an intriguing double bill consisting of Bela Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle, starring the ever-fabulous Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca and Canadian-American bass John Relya, and Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine, starring the ever-versatile Canadian soprano and conductor Barbara Hannigan. 
So, a couple of weeks ago, on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, after having fully enjoyed the traditional buffet of art & history at the stupendous Certosa di San Marino, a culinary feast featuring Vittorio’s priceless asparagus risotto, and a de rigueur stop at the nearby Gambrinus Caffè, we found ourselves in front of a surprisingly deserted opera house. That’s when I realized that I had misread the starting time as 5:30 PM when it was actually 5:00 PM, and my heart precipitously dropped. 
We were fortunately only five minutes late, and the San Carlo, one of the few unfailingly punctual institutions in Naples, is thankfully understanding and flexible when it comes to late comers. Therefore, after a mad dash up a couple of flights of stairs, an usher took us kindly and efficiently into a pitch dark, unexpectedly large and practically empty box, instructing us to go all the way to the first row, which we did as swiftly and discreetly as possible. 
The good news was we had missed just a few minutes of the performance, and none of the opera itself. The bad news was, as soon as the music started, a low humming noise coming from the projector located in the box next to my seat could be heard as well. The situation was partially improved when I moved slightly back, but never completely resolved since there was no intermission, and therefore no opportunity for me to change seats. But then again, (late-arriving) beggars cannot be choosers. 

I had had my first and only brush with Bluebeard’s Castle in, appropriately enough, Budapest many years ago, but my memory of it was rather faint. And missing part of the elaborate introduction (Was it a real dove we saw flying off???) on Sunday did not help put things together. But the main premise of Charles Perrault’s original folktale is not that complicated, and I quickly settled in. As for La voix humaine, I was in an even direst situation since I had only heard of it, never actually heard it, but I had full confidence in the reliable talents of Jean Cocteau and Francis Poulenc. 
One thing was for sure though, I was thrilled at the thought of experiencing Elina Garanca’s magic again, especially in such a fascinating role. And here she was, a naturally magnetic presence that was for the occasion wearing a green sheath dress, a white coat and a pair of red shoes (Could she get more Italian?), with a voice that was as sharp and intense, and consistently elegant, as I remembered it from my Met days. 
Her Judith was the expected endearingly curious young bride, but also oozed a heady combination of poised sensuality, growing anxiety and staunch determination that (Spoiler alert!) will not work out so well for her in the end. She clearly should have been more careful what she wished for, but her increasingly treacherous path to get to the hard truth led to an undeniably spectacular musical tour de force that we all fully relished, so no complaints there. 
As Duke Bluebeard, Judith’s endlessly mysterious cloak-clad husband, John Relyea did wonders with his impressive, and deliciously ominous, dark palette. A die-hard misogynist of the brooding kind in word and deed, who looked and sounded both at odds and in awe of his endlessly inquisitive new consort, he fought long and hard to keep her from his unforbidden secret. But he eventually had to give in and come clean, and still won in the end, toxic masculinity oblige, even if his victory was by all accounts depressingly joyless. 

If I had not known that this 2015 production by eminent Polish director Krzysztof Warlikowski had been co-commissioned by the Opéra de Paris and the Teatro Real in Madrid, I would have automatically assumed that it had come straight from Berlin as the set had the kind of slick and cold aesthetic that can be found on many European opera stages these days. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that this resolutely minimalist approach created an eerie atmosphere full of engrossing suspense and unspoken horror that worked really well for the story. 
The almost bare stage, except for a bar (on which were placed an important bottle of whiskey and an even more important phone) and a sofa, would eventually be partially occupied by seven floor-to-ceiling glass cases containing admittedly stylish but rather gory symbols of what was lying behind each of the seven infamous (and, in this case, invisible) doors. We’re talking about things like a bathtub covered in blood-red satin for the torture chamber, a weapons collector’s kit for the duke’s man cave, orchids for the garden, and a black and white TV for the kingdom. Inventive, but not too much.
I definitely could have done without the performers sitting in the audience before coming on the stage or the black and white video in the background (Haven’t those tricks been used enough already?). Repeated close-ups of a young girl’s face quickly got old, especially after she also appeared on the stage with a snow globe (a link to the opening magician?). On the other hand, I unreservedly approve the excerpts of Jean Cocteau’s legendary 1946 film La belle et la bête, which provided a particularly clever way to introduce Jean Cocteau’s and Francis Poulenc’s La voix humaine

Beside the cinematographic element, the transition was also built around the arrival of Barbara Hannigan, the star of the upcoming 40-minute one-woman show, out of breath and with a gun in her hand, as Bluebeard’s wives were unhurriedly exiting the stage. And just like that, she transported us smoothly into another place and time, in which reigned another musical style and another language, where the same kind of complicated human emotions were filling up the air. So many highly strung women, so little time. 
As Elle, the lonely bourgeois woman with the smart business suit and the impossibly long silky hair that is apparently all the rage in Naples these days (I still have to figure out why girls around here are so obsessed with the Kardashians’ looks) having one last heartbreaking, and frequently interrupted, telephone conversation with her lover, Hannigan spared no efforts to convey vulnerability, longing, and despair as she slowly but surely unraveled in real time before our eyes. 
Blessed with an incredibly wide vocal range that she continuously deployed to express her character’s erratic emotional journey, she also managed to pull off an extremely—I am tempted to say, excessively—physical performance that left many of us exhausted. Next to her non-stop agitation, the docile dog sharing the stage with her was the picture of Zen, and her wounded ex-beau not much more than an after-thought. 

Each of the back-to-back performances mightily benefited from their own scores, which were both completely unique and yet oddly similar in their appealing lyricism and unyielding tension, Bartok’s a seductively oppressive take on the ancient fairy tale, Poulenc’s an exquisitely frazzled accompaniment to a tragic modern monologue. Edward Gardner, who knows a thing or two about opera after his successful stint as music director of the English National Opera from 2007 to 2015, showed a deep respect and profound sensitivity towards the music and the performers, treating us to a totally rewarding musical experience while keeping us at the edge of our seats. 

Once the show was over, it turned out that the San Carlo had one last surprise in store for us. As soon as the lights came on, my companions and I realized that we had ended up in the San Carlo’s ultra-fancy royal box, which in retrospect explained the extra space and the priceless view. Needless to say, I immediately felt under-dressed, but then decided to make up for it with a slightly blasé attitude as we basked in our surreal surroundings for a few minutes, before coolly making our way through the horde of the less fortunate gathered outside trying to take a peek at the splendor reserved for the mighty. 
My friends completely absolved me for inadvertently making us late since I had given them something to write home about, and I half-forgave the San Carlo for putting me in a spot that, no matter how prestigious it was, came with an unwelcome soundtrack. Turned out that our legitimate box was, as had been planned when I bought the tickets, the one that was exceptionally occupied by the humming projector next door. Only in Naples.

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