For most people, Paul Dukas (1865-1935) is a one-work composer (The Sorcerer's Apprentice), and that largely because of Walt Disney, Mickey Mouse, and Fantasia. In my opinion, The Sorcerer's Apprentice is one of the most glorious pieces of classical music. Even so, that's no reason to ignore everything else that Dukas wrote.
Like Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, the opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue (1907) has a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck that is short on action, but not lacking mystery and atmosphere. Ariane is Bluebeard's sixth wife, and immediately after arriving in his castle, she sets out to get to the bottom of the story going around that he has killed his five previous wives. Leaving the precious jewels to the Nurse who accompanies her, Ariane goes right to the forbidden door. Unlocking it, she hears singing, as if from a crypt below. Bluebeard angrily confronts her, but when the peasants who have been monitoring the situation from outside the castle walls try to intervene, she reassures them that she is alright. In the second act, she resumes her search for the missing wives, and soon finds them. (One, whose name is Alladine, speaks another language and is mute throughout the opera.) She soon leads them out of the crypt and to the chamber where the opera began. They all adorn themselves in preparation for their imminent rescue from the locked castle. Bluebeard returns, this time with reinforcements, but they are soon routed by the peasants, and Bluebeard, trussed and injured, is brought inside, presumably to be killed by the wives. Instead, they tend to his wounds and untie him. Ariane tells the wives that it is time for her to go. None, however, wishes to leave with her; they would rather stay with Bluebeard. Ariane and the Nurse depart, leaving the five wives tending their injured husband. The curtain falls. We are not told what happened next, of course. Does Bluebeard change his ways? Does he imprison the wives again? Does he keep the best and discard the rest? Interestingly, one of the wives is named Mélisande. Perhaps she leaves Bluebeard and meets Golaud in the forest? (In fact, there is a quotation from Debussy's opera in act II.)
Bluebeard has just a few lines in act I, is absent from act II, and is mute in act III. Ariane, on the other hand, hardly gets a moment's rest in this opera. It must be a killer to perform this role live. Dukas's writing is ripely late-Romantic and impressionist. Also, the work is more like an orchestral tone-poem with vocal obbligatos than a traditional opera. One of the reasons Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is not better known is that the score contains no nuggets that can be performed or recorded separately. There are no arias and duets, per se, and no soaring melodies in the manner of Puccini. That's not to say that the score is arid or unrewarding. Like Debussy's Pelléas, it simply needs to be heard for what it is, not as what one might wish it to be. Then one can appreciate all that it has to offer. Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is a nearly two-hour bath, both soothing and riotously floral.
This is only the second studio recording of this work. Its predecessor, recorded for Erato more than 20 years ago and conducted by Armin Jordan, is now out of print and very hard to find on CD. Luckily, Botstein knows how to make the most of this score's ripe yet elusive charms, thereby confirming the good impression that he made in his recording of Ernest Chausson's similarly rare Le Roi Arthus two or three years ago (Telarc CD-80645). The BBC Symphony Orchestra responds to the work's many colors, and Botstein keeps the music moving along with intellect, sensitivity, and sensuality. Telarc's engineering also helps the music and the performance put their best feet forward.
Most of the singing is excellent. With so many women singing, it can be hard to create distinguishable characters, particularly among the previous wives, but the present group does just that. Having said that, it also is a pleasure to report that when they sing together, as they occasionally do, the result is entrancing. As the Nurse, Patricia Bardon has a thankless task – even Dukas seems to forget about her, much of the time – but she is sympathetic and not at all maternal as long as she is around. Rose's Bluebeard has little opportunity to make an impression, but at least it is not an unfavorable one. (On the Erato recording, this role was sung by Gabriel Bacquier, which seems like an utter waste to me.)
That leaves us with Lori Phillips's Ariane. This is a somewhat problematic performance. Ariane is a mezzo, and although Phillips is a soprano, her voice is dark-colored – in fact, darker than that of the Nurse. (Interestingly, the first Metropolitan Ariane was Geraldine Farrar, and Grace Bumbry and Inge Borkh also have tried their hand at the role.) Much of the time, Phillips sounds warm and sympathetic, but across the registers, her voice can be rather unpredictable, and she can sound matronly, squally, and hollow, particularly above the stave. In its heft and thickness, it's really the opposite of what I would call a French sound, although her diction is good. It's hard to know whether to play Ariane as a sort of Fidelio, or to emphasize her more feminine qualities. Whether by choice or by vocal nature, Phillips tends toward the former, and although that is valid, I don't feel the character fully comes to life. Still, this is largely satisfying singing, and the characterization comes close enough to the mark. (I would have loved to hear Jessye Norman have a go at Ariane.)
Telarc's booklet contains the full French text with good English translations, essays by Botstein, David Murray, and John Ashbery, and short biographies of the performers.
Copyright © 2007, Raymond Tuttle