DUKAS Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
Paul Dukas’s take on the Bluebeard legend has a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck and a score that evokes both Debussy (directly quoted) and Wagner. It’s a curious take, in that Bluebeard has no more than 20 bars to sing in the whole opera, whereas Ariane – the sixth wife who eventually abandons him to her five predecessors – is on stage throughout. The second most prominent character is Ariane’s nurse. Add important contributions from four of the other wives (the fifth being a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language), and it’s almost a concerto for female voices and orchestra. Without a score or libretto (the latter happily provided here) it can be difficult on CD to know just who is singing at any moment.
For a long time the only recording in the catalogue was a 1983 Erato version under Armin Jordan. This, though, is the fourth further release in recent years. Of these I confess to fondness for a slightly abridged 1968 French radio recording for its full complement of native French singers and a conductor (Tony Aubin) who studied with Dukas himself. However, it can only be an adjunct to a recording with modern sound that brings out the full glory of Dukas’s luminous score.
That is certainly provided by this newcomer – a splendid 1986 recording from the archives of Cologne Radio. From the very first bar Gary Bertini reveals a mastery of the score that puts in the shade all but Bertrand de Billy, achieving a menacing quality and tension missing elsewhere, and surging to brilliant effect at key orchestral moments such as the opening of the various doors of Bluebeard’s castle to reveal ever greater hordes of priceless jewels.
As for the main singers, Bertini has the most natural pairing in Marilyn Schmiege and Jocelyne Taillon – expressive, secure in intonation, well coupled and well contrasted. By contrast, Jordan has a plummy Bulgarian Nurse with odd French vowels, de Billy a sometimes ill-focused Ariane, and Botstein voices poorly distinguishable from each other. Altogether this newcomer seems to me a clear winner all round.