Ariane et Barbe-bleue

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Composer: Paul Dukas

Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck after Charles Perrault

First Produced: Opèra Comique, Paris, 1907

Present Company: Opera Barcelona, 2011

[a production of the Zurich Opera]

Director: Claus Guth

Sets & Costumes: Christian Schmidt

Lighting: Jurgen Hoffman

Video Design: Timo Schlüssel

Video Director: Pietro D’Agostino

Orchestra & Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Conductor: Stéphane Denève



Ariane - Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet

Nurse - Patricia Bardon

Barbe-bleue - José van Dam

Sélysette - Gemma Coma-Alabert

Ygraine - Beatriz Jiménez

Mélisande - Elena Copons

Bellangère - Salomé Haller

Alladine - Alba Valldaura



Resolution: 1080i

Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1

Disc size: BD-50

Opera: 22.57 GB

Bit Rate: High (ca. 32 Mbps)

French DTS-HD MA 5.1

French LPCM 2.0 stereo

Subtitles: English, Italian, German, French, Spanish, Catalan, Japanese & Korean

Region: All

Opera runtime: 121 minutes

Opus Arte 2012



Conception & Staging: C

Costumes: B

Lighting: C

Casting: A

Singing: A-

Orchestra: A

Music Direction: A

Video Direction: C

Image: A

Audio: B

Extras Features: D

Recommendation: B-



The composer of one of the most popular tone poems, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) wrote only this one opera, and going only by that earlier, colorful gem, this opera is unexpected. But Paul Dukas (1865-1935) was nothing if not a man of his times, and French to boot. During his lifetime, music underwent some radical rethinking. Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was a contemporary, though he died much earlier, as was Mahler (1860-1911) and Richard Strauss (1864-1949.) Considerably more prolific, these composers, along with Dukas, had their feet planted in both what was and what would be. Dukas did not compose a great deal that survived – he having destroyed much that he wasn’t entirely satisfied with. In addition to L'apprenti sorcier, he wrote a symphony, some piano music and a ballet, La Peri, the Fanfare from which, though not nearly as well known is every bit as good as Copland’s Common Man from his Third Symphony. His music, excepting the opera, is easily accessible, and what there was of it was accepted by progressives and conservatives alike. Alas, it was not in comparison to Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande that the opera lost steam after its successful premiere but because of Strauss’ Salome, which premiered two years earlier and took audiences by unexpected storm.



The opera is a curious case. While The Sorcerer’s Apprentice owes its inspiration to a late eighteenth century poem by Goethe, and La Peri (1912) is a more or less original and exceedingly skilled ballet score with a story derived from ancient Persian characters and symbols, Ariane et Barbe-bleu (Ariadne and Bluebeard), composed just a few years earlier, was composed to a libretto written by none other than the Belgian symbolist, Maurice Maeterlinck, of Pelleas et Melisande fame. Debussy had only just finished his opera based on Maeterlinck’s play in 1902, when Dukas began work in earnest on Ariane et Barbe-bleu. Interestingly, Edvard Grieg was slated to write the operatic version of Maeterlinck’s play, but his interest waned and Maeterlinck sought out Dukas - and as a bonus, or challenge, I’m not sure, he also provided the libretto, more or less lifted from his play. I assume he did this because he was not happy with Debussy’s alterations to his Pelleas. Even more interesting is that Dukas would be in contact with Debussy for the first three years he worked on the opera, apparently because Maeterlinck was not readily available and I suspect Dukas wanted another set of eyes on his project lest he fail to get the playwright’s blessing as well.



The Story

Ariane et Barbe-bleu is every bit as mystical and symbolist as Maeterlinck’s more famous play and pits legendary protagonists from different times and cultures against each other, offering composer and audience ever more implications, layers, and opportunities for drama. Ariane is the Ariadne of Greek mythology, the daughter of Minos, King of Crete. The aspect of her story that most relates to Maeterlinck’s play has to do with her aiding sacrificial victims through the Labyrinth, thus bypassing the Minotaur.  Bluebeard is a legendary serial killer from roughly the 15th century whose exploits were best told in the folktale by Charles Perrault, the author of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Little Red Riding Hood. Up to a point, Maeterlinck’s play, and Dukas’ opera, follows Perrault closely, but starting with the second act. Maeterlinck takes a different and even grimmer tack. In Perrault’s tale, the heroine finds Bluebeard’s wives dead in a pool of blood. She and her sister are rescued from Bluebeard’s knife at the last moment by their brothers who slay the murderer and the heroine inherits his wealth. In the opera, the wives are not dead, but barely living in a dark cellar without ambition as almost willing victims. When Ariane offers them an opportunity to escape they refuse to leave.



As the opera opens, Ariane and her nurse arrive at Bluebeard’s home. The townspeople clamor for his head believing that he has murdered all his five wives in succession. Ariane believes they are not dead and moreover she feels she knows how to handle Bluebeard by disobeying threatening or menacing orders. Ariane has been given seven keys (six silver, one gold) by her new husband with instructions that she may open the doors by the silver keys but not the gold. With each successive door there pour out treasures of jewels, sapphires, pearls, emeralds and diamonds. Bu Ariane does not stop there and opens the seventh door which leads her to a cavern where she finds his past wives, alive, after a fashion. She helps them find their way to the main hall, but when Bluebeard returns, as if under his spell, they cannot bring themselves to leave with her. She and her nurse leave alone.




Instead of the traditional castle, Director Claus Guth and Sets & Costume designer Christian Schmidt show us the front of an ordinary house covered in shadows. Once inside, Ariane and her nurse, dressed from head to toe in dazzling white, find themselves in an empty room with plain, off-white walls with six doors. We have the impression of an asylum. As they open each door, a wash of bright light burns its way into to the room through which a different frightened woman rushes out, and after their return the nurse enters the room behind the door to discover Bluebeard’s hordes of precious jewels. Ariane uses the gold key which reveals a huge cavern beneath floor and faint singing from the “entombed” wives. Bluebeard enters and chastises Ariane for disobedience.



The second act takes place in the relative darkness of the subterranean cavern where the other wives are housed. They are each named, by the way, for characters in Maeterlinck’s other plays. Ariane asks them if they have ever tried to escape but they say that every exit is barred. Ariande finds a slit of light, and following it, she beckons the wives to follow her through the main house to freedom.  The third act resumes the action on the main floor where the wives are content in Ariane’s presence, but when Bluebeard returns, he is wounded. The wives care for him and cannot leave. Ariane and her nurse exits.


Claus Guth’s production – which, by the way, takes liberties with the libretto, not only in its detail, but in its implications – suggests that the reason the wives do not leave is that they are insane (vide; the twitching, hair twisting, holding fast to stuffed animals) which doesn’t give much credit to Maeterlinck’s subtle melancholic symbolism. It seems facile and pointlessly chic to modernize the context and reduce the motivation for the wives’ refusal to leave to mere madness.



The Music

Despite the connection to Pelleas through the author and the composer’s personal association to Debussy, Dukas’ music could not possibly be confused with the ever-unresolving harmonic movement and endless melody of the man we associate with French Impressionism. It seems to me that Dukas, as much as his opera looks back to Wagner’s Parsifal, is, if anything, more “modern” than Debussy, luscious and precious as it is. It is an interesting idea to balance so many treble soloists with a single bass voice and one that appears for only brief stretches in the first and third acts. I’m not sure that it comes off all that well in this performance, but the notion is intriguing. As I was listening to the extended orations of Ariane and her nurse, both singing in a relatively lowish part of the voice, I felt as if I were listening to just one person, an impression that was encouraged in the second act and a good deal of the third.




Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet’s Ariane is acted with sincerity but, at least in this recording, her voice seems stuck in her chest. Patricia Bardon’s Nurse is pitched low as well, but has a little more energy behind it. By the time of Van Dam’s entrance near the end of the first act, even he sounds half-alive, his age notwithstanding. All the wives are more interesting, not least because they are more hysterical, but also because the tessitura is higher. Stéphane Denève’s conducting is spot-on and his orchestra is wonderful, though textures are a little smeared. The audience is well-behaved, which is always a plus.



Video & Image

My one criticism about the Blu-ray itself has to do with the extraordinary lighting and how this is (mis)interpreted by the video director. This is hard to convey in words, but the general idea is that when a portion of the stage is suddenly awash in strong light, as it often is in the first act, and the camera initially shows us the entire stage, as it should, we see how overexposed the area where the light strikes. This, too, is correct. But as soon as the camera cuts to a close-up, the exposure changes dramatically to compensate, which is not only confusing to the eye, but completely misses the dramatic implications of the lighting design. Quite honestly I’m not sure there is a useful way to rationalize the discrepancy. The audience has the ability to take in various parts of the set when this happens so as not to overexpose the retina, the brain meanwhile creates a new image that makes it all work. The camera can’t do this (though HDR can.) BTW we see that the director does not apply the same logic to the darker scenes under the house: i.e., he does not bring up the light be altering the exposure so that we can see things “normally.” Nor should he. The reason he does it when the light is too strong is that all he would get is transparent white, which is useless. At least shadows in the dark have some meaning.




As I was listening to the extended orations of Ariane and her nurse, both singing in a relatively lowish part of the voice, I felt as if I were listening to just one person, an impression that was encouraged in the second act and a good deal of the third. I exaggerate, of course, but there is a kind of droning that sets in on this recording that doesn’t on the Erato LP or CD. This was true whether listening to the surround or the stereo mix. Additionally I observed that during an extended solo for oboe it seemed I was hearing a single reed rather than double reed instrument, in short, a clarinet. The camera is staring at the oboist making music and what comes out is something else. Part of this is merely the shortcoming of my player’s ability to deliver true timbres - not that your average pretty good player or audio/video processor does any better. I’m not sure what else accounts for it in this instance. Home theatre audio has always depended on the ability of the image to get across the illusion or the diversion, whichever works better. All that semi-rant aside, I ended up preferring the stereo mix for its improved focus and balance.




A Cast Gallery which, for reasons passing understanding, omits the second most vocal part in the opera, Patricia Bardon’s Nurse, plus a Booklet with a 3-page Synopsis and a useful  3-page essay by Gavin Plumley about the Dukas/Maeterlinck collaboration are all that Opus Arte gives us this time around.



The singing is, by and large good, but not especially subtle. The Orchestra of the Gran Teatre del Liceu sounds rich and textured under the baton of Stéphane Denève. I prefer the 2-channel mix as it is more focused and offers a better balance between orchestra and soloists. Besides that the production concept lacks subtlety it is entirely too challenging for the videographer to make sense of. My recommendation is to stick with the 1983 recording on Erato with Katherine Ciesinski, Maurina Paunova and Gabriel Bacquier, conducted by Armin Jordan.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

April 13, 2014

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