DUKAS Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
The familiarity of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice seems to have detracted from recognition of one of the major French operas of the early 20th century. Ariane et Barbe-Bleue should rank with not only Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (with which it shares a librettist and a musical theme) but also Bartók’s more celebrated Bluebeard treatment of a few years later. Fortunately the Dukas work’s centenary has given it deserved exposure. Here is its first DVD and Blu-ray representation – from the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, in 2011 (its local premiere), a staging seen originally in Zurich in 2005.
The essence of Maeterlinck’s treatment is that Ariane, the sixth wife, tries vainly to persuade her five predecessors – all still alive – to escape with her. As Ariane, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet offers limited variety of tone, but she stands up remarkably well to the role’s non-stop demands. As her nurse, Patricia Bardon is admirable in a role she has rather made her own on stage and CD. José van Dam is luxury casting in a part with just a few sung lines. The scintillating orchestral textures are compellingly realised under Stéphane Denève.
Producer Claus Guth, though, over-compensates for lack of action by presenting the first five wives as not merely institutionalised but deranged. His conception is seemingly inspired by real-life cases of females kept captive against their will, but – as so often – an inspired idea is not carried through. We see Bluebeard’s castle initially as a suburban home, with his chariot a passing car. Yet there is no sign of the villagers supposedly outside baying for Bluebeard’s blood. Throughout, indeed, there’s negligible depiction of this important part of the story. Far from escaping his attackers in Act 3, Bluebeard rises serenely from below, roped to a bed. Moreover, dressing all seven women in shades of white and cream makes differentiation difficult. If visual presentation does not enhance the drama, one might as well listen with libretto in hand to one of the five CD recordings, of which I particularly admire the version conducted by Gary Bertini (Capriccio, 2/12). In sound or vision, though, Dukas’s opera deserves to be heard.