ArianePaul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

Gran Teatre del Liceu, 2011 | Stéphane Denêve, Claus Guth, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, José van Dam, Patricia Bardon, Gemma Coma-Alabert, Beatriz Jiménez, Elena Copons, Salomé Haller, Alba Valldaura, Pierpaolo Palloni, Xavier Martínez, Dimitar Darlev | Opus Arte

There are many meanings and cautionary messages that can be drawn from the fairytales of Charles Perrault, but ‘Bluebeard‘ - the tale of an aristocratic serial killer who murders his wives - is surely one of the most gruesome and darkly enigmatic. Even more so in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, the version penned by the Symbolist Belgian dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, the author of Pelléas et Mélisande, who himself adapted the work - again practically intact - as a libretto for the French composer Paul Dukas. Comparisons with Debussy’s opera - written only five years previously in 1902 - are inevitable, but if the musical influences that Dukas draws from are more evident and less distinctive than Debussy, the turn of the 20th century psychological exploration of the characters through the combination of Maeterlinck’s words and Dukas’s music is no less endlessly fascinating and deeply compelling.

In Maeterlinck’s hands, the perspective of the Bluebeard folktale is rather different from Perrault’s, the dark horror and cautionary note of the serial killer storyline rather less prominent than the exploration of the psychology of the female protagonists who seem to willingly submit to the thrall of masculine power and domination through marriage. The story here does indeed touch on the dark fascination of female curiosity for the violent danger of a male sexuality that simultaneously attracts and repels. In Maeterlinck’s story, Bluebeard’s latest bride, Ariane, has given herself in marriage to the notorious aristocrat who is believed to have murdered his previous five wives, but she has not submitted entirely to his authority. The six silver keys he has given that open doors to wonderful treasures represent the rewards and the boundaries of what Ariane can expect by following the rules set out by the marriage - each of the doors opening to rooms containing amethysts, sapphires, pearls, emeralds, rubies and, finally, diamonds - pure and eternal. That doesn’t stop Ariane however from opening the forbidden door locked by the gold key - “After diamonds, there can only be fire and death”, she observes.

The final door inevitably holds the secret to the fate of Bluebeard’s previous five wives, and it relates to some extent to a female curiosity based on an urge on the part of Ariane to explore the sexual history of her husband. While there is some psychological exploration of that impulse that verges on self-destructive, Maeterlinck and Dukas use that drive towards a more progressive feminist view in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Ariane may driven by unknown impulses and working to guidelines set out by Bluebeard, but she is not in the thrall of the “enchantment” of her husband in the same way as the other wives. Their charms - the flaming hair of Mélisande, the delicate arms of Ygraine, the fair shoulders of Bellangère - have been hidden by marriage, whereas Ariane is forceful and secure in asserting her own personality and determined to help the other women achieve their own independence and expression. Like Pelléas et Mélisande however, Maeterlinck’s work and symbolism defies any simple allegorical meaning and one shouldn’t be strictly be applied to the exclusion of other resonances and mysteries that lie within it.

Although it is rather more emphatic in highlighting the specifics of the drama and the words than Debussy, Dukas’ score also hints at those other meanings and ambiguities. The references to Debussy’s impressionism may be apparent - just as Maeterlinck uses characters from his other works (like Mélisande) for Bluebeard’s wives - but Dukas more obviously draws from Wagner and particularly Strauss in Salome (in the scoring of the dark undercurrents in the relationship between Salome and Jochanaan) for more explicit, direct expression. It’s a fascinating and rich musical exploration by Dukas in his only opera work, powerful, beautiful and modern, possibly even more influential than Debussy’s unique and inimitable opera, with the associations and female psychology explored here evidently influential on Strauss and Hofmannstahl’s fairytale-like Die Frau ohne Schatten and its extraordinary use of female voices is matched only by Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites.

Considering the psychological nature of the work and the necessity of allowing its openness, ambiguity and symbolism to speak for itself, it’s perhaps not surprising that director Claus Guth doesn’t follow the libretto too literally. He avoids what would now be considered clichéd imagery in the opening scene of mobs of angry townspeople bearing pitchforks and firebrands, as the latest young bride seems to go willingly to her doom in Bluebeard’s castle. The castle here is nothing more than a modern suburban residence, but it’s what it represents that is important, and evidently the house is Bluebeard himself and it’s the uncomfortable and dangerous nature of the masculinity that Ariane examines, challenges and delves into, not only opening doors, but breaking through the surface of the floor to the horrors that lie underneath. The set design works well in this respect, keeping the visuals clean, simple and symbolic, allowing the singers the necessary space to express the layers of meaning that lie within Maeterlinck’s libretto and Dukas’ seething score.

Much of the power of the work is indeed delivered through the scoring for powerful mezzo-soprano and contralto female voices and this cast proves to be highly effective in conveying its force. Ariane requires a strong Wagnerian soprano to express her character’s inner strength of personality and purposefulness and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet’s rich tone is commanding and persuasive, yet sensitive to the shimmering suggestion of the score. She is well supported by an equally strong and wonderfully measured Patricia Bardon as the nurse, but all of the female cast here are impressive here as the other wives, although Gemma Coma-Alabert’s fiery Sélysette is the only one with a significant role. As the male at the centre of the work, Bluebeard is evidently an important role in Ariane et Barbe-bleue, even if the singing is limited to only a few lines. José van Dam - who has mostly retired from big-scale stage productions - is no longer in possession of a voice as commanding as it once was, but there’s consequently a vulnerability as well as a necessary strength of personality here that puts an interesting spin on his Barbe-bleue.

This is an extremely rare work but one that deserves to be better known, and - appearing for the first time on either DVD or Blu-ray - this is a marvellous production of a fascinating work, emphatically delivered with force and sensitivity by the orchestra of the Liceu under Stéphane Denêve. The quality of the Blu-ray’s HD image and high resolution sound mixes ensures that the performance is given the best possible presentation. I personally found the surround DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 mix a little too open, and that it suited the more direct stereo PCM mix better, with the full detail of the orchestration clearer through headphones. Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the disc, but the booklet contains a good essay by Gavin Plumley, whose reading of Ariane striking out towards the 20th century while the others refuse to take the freedom offered is a good one, and there’s a full, detailed synopsis. The BD is all-region compatible with subtitles in English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.