A spotlit head, and later its torso, emerge from the floor of an empty stage. Alone and vulnerable, the image first recalls John the Baptist, then a male version of Beckett’s Happy Days. This is the poet in Janácek’s Diary of One Who Disappeared, the first part of a novel twinning with Bluebeard’s Castle, staged by the Catalan entity La Fura dels Baus with sets by Jaume Plensa.
Whatever these symbols mean, Michael König’s poet sings with appreciable force and clarity. Hannah Esther Minutillo is the gypsy girl, the object of his desires, showing off her legs in black hotpants; she’s a prostitute, which to contemporary eyes is assumed to have the same stigma as sleeping with a gypsy did a century ago.
Gustav Kuhn’s orchestration of the piano part is of only intermittent interest, the production team fails to pace the piece properly – the writhing body-stockinged figures that advance like worms on the exposed head look like padding – but the mood of anxious ambiguity is set for the pièce de résistance.
Bluebeard’s Castle is a masterstroke of video work and lighting, a series of images that tease the imagination. It’s an unusually stark and pared down approach from the Catalans, like an oblique tribute to Robert Wilson’s tidy geometry, but strikingly efficient. The castle is the Palais Garnier itself: ravishing expressionist kaleidoscopes of the grand staircase and the neo-baroque foyer make us feel part of the ambient disquiet.
Gustav Kuhn’s conducting cloaks the score in Debussyan, dreamlike textures, treating the work as a sequel to Pelléas, matching the gloom on stage. Béatrice Uria-Monzon’s Judith is a light mezzo for a booming role but her lithe silhouette glides magically in the shadows, nagging Willard White’s robust Bluebeard with fatal leading questions.
It’s a mistake to use a 40-a-day voice to growl the introductory narrative in French – the original Hungarian would have been spookier – but Gérard Mortier has a stylish hit on his hands. Even the production team was cheered.
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