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Deborah Polaski
18 Sep 2007

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue and Capriccio in Paris

Name this stage piece if you can:

Paul Dukas: Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
Richard Strauss: Capriccio

Above: Deborah Polaski (Ariane)


The set design seems to be a mental hospital or minimum security prison. Lighting is institutional and colorless. Video cameras are trained on the doors and interiors, and the images are projected as if on a large security screen. Costuming is mostly drab and clinical, save one man-in-charge in a business suit.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? “Whose Life Is It anyway”? “Dead Man Walking”?

Nope, this was the design for Paul Dukas’ “Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” that premiered at Paris Opera Bastille on 13 September.

This particular musical consideration of the Bluebeard story is based on the play by Flemish author Maurice Maeterlinck, whose static stage works are characterized by mysticism, pre-occupied with death, and propelled by fate. Dukas was a friend of Debussy, and while the latter’s influences can be heard in this opera, Dukas was a noted teacher and inventive composer in his own right. Although perfectionism led him to destroy much of his work, and while today he is known primarily for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” his sole opera contains much to be admired, including compelling orchestral effects for a very large ensemble, quite grateful (and even tuneful) vocal writing, and a tour de force role for dramatic soprano. More’s the pity, then, that a rare opportunity to experience this jewel was wasted in such a lackluster setting.

It is supposed to be set in Bluebeard’s castle, of course, but here in this mid-20th century institution, the requisite doors are all there, the different rooms are tidily appointed, and the cubicles are separated by “windows” that allow us to see everything happening within the minimally-structured “frames.” But it becomes very very tedious to look at after about ten minutes.

Too, it is hard to make much spatial and structural sense of it when one minute the characters are seemingly “contained” by the compartmentalized low “walls” and expansive “window panes,” and the next they are blithely scampering through and over them as though they don’t exist. The structure also makes hash of so many textual references to stairs and cellars and gates and all, that you sort of just have to say, “okay, they are nuts, let’s accept that they aren’t making sense.”

The video cams that are trained on the doors, that show off “Ariane’s” jewels in the sink (!), that focus close-up on the fatal sixth door “lock” (oooooh, spooooooky -- not) turn out to be a bad idea gone wrong. They catch goofy brief glimpses of things like the Nurse’s handbag, until she moves and we are left looking at the damn’ wallpaper pattern in black and white on the large vertical screen that dominates the right side of the stage.

In Act Two, when the (unseen) villagers revolt, catch phrases from the libretto (“kill him,” “after him,” etc.) are rather comically projected evoking silent movies, needlessly duplicating the super-titles, and alternating with close-ups of sinks-locks-wallpaper. Only once does a projection rather “work” artistically, when the bound, wounded Bluebeard stumbles in from the down stage left door, and a cam from the wings captures him, Ariane, the Nurse, and the other wives in a cross-stage shot. But as I stared at it, I thought “why am I looking at this screen when there are live actors on the stage?”

Happily the musical side of it was mostly wonderful. I often find Sylvain Cambreling’s conducting workmanlike at best, and eccentric at worst. However, on this occasion he led a fine reading, scoring all of the musical high points and keeping the singers and the large instrumental ensemble quite well-balanced in this sometimes problematic house. The pit responded to his leadership with exceptional playing.

The estimable Willard White was luxury casting in the small yet important role of Bluebeard (who sings not a note in Act II). Julia Juon poured out dramatic singing of the highest order as the Nurse, and all of the wives were very good, most especially Diana Axentii as “Sélysette.” And now the “mostly” part of the “mostly wonderful” musical side:

While Deborah Polaski sang “Ariane” beautifully 85% of the night -- which is to say in the lower, middle, and upper-middle registers -- she sadly no longer has the “money” passages above the staff where the voice was frayed, the volume was loud-to-louder, and the acquaintance with pitches was far too casual.

Up until recently one of our leading dramatic sopranos, too many “Isolde’s” and “Brünnhilde’s” seem to have exacted their price. I hope she can take time to get back to her usual high standard, ‘cause we need her. She was not helped by an unflattering costume: a beige business suit with floppy felt hat that made her look like a henna-rinsed spinster school ma’rm in comfortable shoes. She was certainly never really “bad,” but to makes its full effect the opera needs a tireless soprano on top of her form, a far more beautiful production design (perhaps starting with the diva’s attire), and oh yes, meaningful direction.

One of the nuttier things she was made to do: when “Ariane” is supposed to tend to “Barbe-Bleu’s” wounds, she puts her over-the-top diamond necklace over-the-top of her buttoned-up white blouse, reverses her jacket to don it as a white lab coat, and violently wrenches away the rope that was binding prone and beaten Bluebeard. Ouch. Nurse Ratched lives! Be-jeweled yet! Then she reverses the procedure, becomes natty Miss Ariane again, and primly announces “I must leave now.” Dumb.

The production team was vociferously booed and jeered by much of the house, and the enthusiastic applause that had greeted the singers and conductor, immediately went nearly silent when they came on stage. Note to opera producers everywhere:

If much of the audience is vocally disapproving your artistic choices, indeed if not one person is cheering them, if most of the patrons stop clapping to protest the ineffective production: you are doing something wrong! Who are you serving with stuff like this? Not poor Dukas. Not the poor singers. Not the poor paying public. Then, who?

Thanks, I feel better now.

And in fact, I felt much much better the very next night when I attended a truly wonderful production of “Capriccio” at the Palais Garnier. Now let me say up front that director Robert Carsen also may not be to all tastes. And every moment in every production of his may not click. But far more often than not, he tells the story clearly and illuminates the content with fresh images and apt concepts. He takes intelligent risks, and when he scores, man, he scores big.

That said, since this production began on the bare stage, I had initial misgivings. They did not entirely go away when the opening string sextet was played on-stage in front of a piece of a bucolic scenery drop flown in, with the “musician Flamand” (Charles Workman in fine form) hovering and fretting around the fringes, and the Countess (fabulous Solveig Kringelborn) at first seated and spot-lit 3/4 of the way back in the auditorium, following along in the score. Eventually, though, the upstage loading doors were opened, revealing a mirrored and chandelier-ed salon that could have been a foyer in the Palais Garnier itself.

Servants moved chairs, tables, harpsichord, harp, etc. from this area to the main stage as needed to accommodate the action. In the frenzied (and terrific) ensemble when all hell breaks loose, another (full) drop comes in, props come out of chests, and there was plenty of color and variety. The entire piece was uncommonly well blocked, with clarity, imagination, motivation, specificity, and fine delineation of character relationships.

After Taupe’s (venerable Robert Tear) charming scene, played in front of an act curtain after he scrambles on stage from the prompter’s box, this curtain raised to reveal an identical act curtain and old-fashioned foot lights, which in turn raised to reveal the here-to-fore far upstage elaborate “foyer,” now re-imagined and filling the stage as a beautiful old-fashioned drop-and-wing set. The Countess, previously costumed in a beautiful dark green satin gown, had added a sheer black mesh version over the top of it which was alive with bugle beads, spangles, and sparkles. We discover her “doubly” glowing in this elaborate set, as she is facing upstage and fully reflected in the mirrored back wall. This was a stunning, chills-inducing coup de theatre. Thank you, Mr. Carsen.

After her beautifully sung final scena in which she “decides not to decide” whether she prefers the suitor “music” (“Flamand”) or “words” (“Olivier,” effectively played by young baritone Tassis Christoyannis), the entire set slowly rises to the fly loft, leaving us again on a bare stage. After an infectious ensemble performed by the furniture-striking servants, fine soloists all, “Countess” and her “Steward” (wonderful bass Jerome Varnier) exit through the real stage door.

Hartmut Haenchen conducted a thrilling reading with his customary heart, skill, and spirit. His excellence deserves to be better known. It was great to hear: Olaf Baer still singing very well as the “Count”; big-voiced Doris Soffel’s “Clairon” as sort of Tallulah-Bankhead-playing-Margot-Channing; the “Italian Singers” Elena Tsallagova and Juan Francisco Gatell who made the most of their featured roles; and Jan-Hendrick Rootering who seemed to be channeling Richard Griffiths (“Harry Potter”) as “La Roche,” with girth and over-sized demeanor that were married to terrific vocals.

But while the ensemble must be excellent, for me this “conversational piece” rises or falls on the success of the soprano, and well, the stunningly lovely blond Ms. Kringelborn had all the vocal goods and star quality to make this a memorable rendition. Occasionally, I wished that she would let phrase-ending top notes blossom instead of pulling them back, but this is a minor quibble as she let rip any number of times with soaring phrases of creamy tone. This was a major assumption of the role by a singer in full control of her musical and dramatic gifts.

All in all, these two outings made for a memorable start indeed to my Paris Opera subscription series.

James Sohre

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