Now it is an intriguing second-rank work whose time may have come
again. Recent performances have led to recordings under Bertrand de Billy and
Leon Botstein, re-releases on classic recordings under Armin Jordan, Gary
Bertini, Tony Aubin and Jean Martinon, and now this first Blu-Ray under
Stéphane Denève from the Gran Teatre del Liceu.
The music and the production, which I witnessed live in Barcelona, are
reproduced faithfully here in high-resolution Blu-Ray quality. Musically, the
best thing about it is Denève’s conducting. He manages to convey Dukas’
half-tone mix of Debussy, Wagner and Strauss (all of whom are both quoted and
imitated in the score), though he struggles to keep the volume down and achieve
the requisite palette of orchestral color. The singing is no more than
adequate. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet is committed singer with a large voice,
good diction, and stage presence, but her voice is unpleasantly stressed by
louder and higher passages in way that grates in an opera where she is
continuously on stage. Irish soprano Patricia Barden has made something of a
specialty of the Nurse, and she is solid, though shows similar strains. José
van Dam delivers a focused, careful performance of the surprisingly short role
of Barbe-Bleue; though over 70 at the time of the production, looks more
convincing on stage than anyone else. Of the wives, the strongest musically is
rising Catalan mezzo-soprano Gemma Coma-Alabert as Sélysette. Yet all this
does not add up to a recording that matches the best CD effort (under Armin
Jordan) or even Toscanini’s excerpt.
So the case for seeking out this recording comes down to the production of
Claus Guth. Any smart and successful German opera director these days—Guth is
both—bends the libretto’s explicit instructions. Most spectators, lacking
previous experience with Ariane, will find the result in this case
confusing: its sparseness leads to absurd inconsistencies with the libretto.
Those with some knowledge of the work, or the time and inclination to think
through Guth’s production, may be even more troubled. Guth’s basic
interpretive trope is to modernize settings and then to contrast bleak
naturalism to individual madness. For him, every libretto contains a hidden
Wozzeck longing to get out. This treatment is singularly unsuited to
Dukas’ delicate and subtle work.
To see why, a little background is useful. The Nobel-prize winning Belgian
Symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck—who provided Ariane’s libretto and
that of Debussy’s Pelleas—was widely viewed as the greatest
Francophone writer of his time. He believed that human emotions and choice are
secondary. We are all marionettes driven by silent, slow-moving forces of which
we are, at best, semi-conscious. His plays do not portray stark realities,
philosophical concepts or madness, but moods, often of feminine melancholy and
foreboding. Maeterlinck seeks to capture these deeper forces and moods through
deliberately ambiguous symbols, metaphors and rituals couched in sparse French
The plot, as Maeterlinck and Dukas meant it to be, turns neither on
Ariane’s relentless impulse to liberate, nor on the feeble resistance of
Barbe-Bleue, but on the fact that his five former wives do not in the end leave
their wounded warrior, reactionary though he may be. Not by chance, they are
evocatively named Sélysette, Ygraine, Bellangère, Alladine, and
Mélisande—all mythic heroines from Maeterlinck’s beloved previous dramas.
Nor is it incidental that Dukas serenades them with his most lovely music: the
chorus of the daughters of Orlamonde, two sets of jewel variations, the escape
from the dungeons, and the finale. The staging and costuming instructions
portray them as unique visions. Whether they are real, or just visions of what
Ariane might be or thinks they are, is unclear. Yet Maeterlinck and Dukas’s
underlying message is clear as it is deliberately ambiguous: the ancient world
of richly imaginative private visions and the modern world of public justice
and mass equality cannot coexist or even communicate. Those who discover this
are not crazy, even if they cannot express precisely why they act as they do.
They are just profoundly human.
Guth has no sense of these existential and historical undertones, or he
chooses to ignore them in the interest of a chic and topical setting. So
Maeterlinck’s medieval castle, with its finely shaded distinctions between
gloomy interiors and imaginary vistas of stained glass, forests and the sea,
becomes the plain off-white interior of a row house, suggesting an asylum.
Barbe-Bleue becomes a suburban psychopath who compensates for his masculine
inadequacies by keeping five former wives chained in its cellar. Ariane becomes
a woman’s libber who sweeps in with the opening chord proclaiming freedom and
independence for all, quickly dominates her new husband, and rescues his
The sole reason left for the wives to reject Ariane’s road to freedom in
favor of servitude in the hands of a criminal is because they are insane, as
indicated by their relentless eye rolling, limb twitching, hair twisting, and
clutching of stuffed animals. To assume that fictional characters must be out
of their minds to act as they do demonstrates a lack of dramaturgical and
cultural imagination. This transforms what is already a subtle and challenging
opera into a very long evening indeed.