Lori Phillips (Ariane), Laura Vlasak-Nolan (Sélysette), Ana James(Ygraine), Daphne Touchais (Mélisande), Patricia Bardon (The Nurse), Sarah-Jane Davies (Bellangère), Peter Rose (Barbe-Bleue), Graeme Danby (Old Peasant)

BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra c. Leon Botstein  

TELARC CD-80680 (2 CD: 114 minutes) 


A timely release, indeed, as it is this more-talked-about-than-heard opera's centenary; and there is no other version available, with the only previous studio recording, from Erato, dating from the 1980's, unavailable for some time. There the conductor was Armin Jordan, who, despite a rather shallow recording, led a very shapely and persuasive account. Here, the performance is led by Leon Botstein, maybe more notable as an academic and president of Bard College. As a conductor, though, he has an impressive discography, specializing in post-romantic rarities, most recently Richard Strauss and Chausson's Franco-Wagnerian paean Le roi Arthus. Botstein has led a production of Ariane atNew York City Opera in 2005, featuring the lead singer here, Lori Philips, though this time round, it is in collaboration with BBC Radio 3. The recording quality is rich and generous and does full justice to Dukas' opulent, indeed, iridescent scoring, displaying a wide dynamic range, with impressive weight in the many fortissimo climaxes. 


Dukas' only opera is often regarded as a follow up to Debussy's epoch-breaking Pelléas et Mélisande,  written five years earlier. While both operas have words by Belgian symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, Debussy's work was based on a play and set more or less verbatim, Maeterlinck had, in fact, originally written Ariane as a libretto for Grieg. Dukas and Debussy were close and Dukas' composing of the opera (1899-1907) overlapped with Debussy's and, indeed, quotes from the earlier opera. But despite the use of certain impressionistic musical devices, the works are poles apart. Dukas' music is far more opulent and extrovert than Debussy's, and its Wagnerian influence more overt and less personally transmuted than Debussy's. It is a rigorously symphonic score, with extremely cunning and ingenious thematic transformations showing the influence of Wagner, Franck and Saint-Saëns. Early advocates included Richard Strauss, Korngold, Zemlinsky and the second Viennese school: Schönberg, Berg and Webern.  Olivier Messiaen, a pupil of Dukas' in his later years when his zealous perfectionism had rendered him silent as a composer, wrote a highly technical analysis and appreciation of the opera. The work was initially widely performed, including a starry send off at the Metropolitan Opera with Geraldine Farrar under the baton of Toscanini. Despite all of this, the work has never caught on. The ample background notes included in the booklet to this recording do not shed light on its checkered past, but they do bandy the word masterpiece around a great deal: certainly it is a very strong and inspired score; but, there is no denying the problems.


Maeterlinck's take on the Bluebeard legend is ultra-feminist. Ariane (no overt mythological references here: in fact the early English translations call her Ardiane) has no opposition throughout the entire opera. Bluebeard is a minor role, confined to a few parlando lines at the end of Act One and a silent appearance in the last act. The other wives, all named after characters in Maeterlinck's earlier plays, including a Mélisande (introduced in the opera by a snatch of her theme from Debussy's work) and a mute, Alladine, are not realy differentiated; instead, they act as a Greek chorus, describing the offstage action and the very colouristic scenic suggestions, which are almost as abstract as those in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle, a work much indebted to this. Ariane's Nurse fulfils a similar function in the first act, before the wives are revealed, describing the opening of the various doors and the fountains of jewels found within. When the wives appear in Act Two, she is left inconsequentially in dramatic limbo--her function gone. Ariane dominates the opera, but not as a very sympathetic character, despite the librettist's intent. Like a scary composite of an earnest Mary Poppins mixed with Camille Paglia, she is fully in charge of every situation, dominating Bluebeard, rescuing the wives by climbing over the set and breaking glass ceilings, suggesting what they should wear, dispensing theatrical aspirin at the hint of any problem and never displaying an iota of vulnerability or self-doubt.  It is her utter domination of the opera, rather than the lack of action, that cripples the work. It is not interesting for a heroine to be always right. At the conclusion, instead of being liberated by Ariane, the wives elect to remain with Bluebeard--and no wonder! Ariane departs alone. It is a monster rôle, written in that in-between French fach, the falcon, a not-quite soprano tessitura, but relentlessly forceful and high for a mezzo. Grace Bumbry once memorably essayed the part in Paris; but, it would have been ideal for Régine Crespin in the early 1960's. Lori Phillips is a real soprano, having undertaken Tosca and Turandot in the US. She has all the notes, including a stentorian lower register; and her French is good, though not forwardly placed. Since her voice is more individual lower down, the protracted solos, particularly in the problematic second act where she rescues the wives, can seem relentless and undifferentiated; and her tonal colour cannot make anything touching or vulnerable out of her departure at the opera's conclusion. Frankly, though, Dukas does not help her. While his orchestral writing is fascinating, the vocal lines are neither memorable or psychologically revealing. The singer on Armin Jordan's set, Katherine Csesinski, was similarly courageous and efficient. Patricia Bardon makes much of little as the Nurse, as does Peter Rose in the tiny part of Bluebeard. Among the wives, Laura Vlasak-Nolan stands out as having a particularly burnished timbre, but all are successful, even if the French is variable. The Mélisande is the only French singer in the cast. 


Leon Botstein, while relishing every ounce of colour in the score, despatches the work without much nuance; and in doing so, he makes the score sound more Germanic than Franco-Russian. Dukas' transitions from dark to light can be somewhat sudden, and the score needs more helpful shaping than it receives here. It is also a noisy score; and the many climaxes need more gradating - in particular the second act seems to lack shape. Crucially, he is prosaic at two of the works most overwhelming climaxes: the sixth door revealing a flood of diamonds (clearly the source for Bartok's blazing Fifth door in Bluebeard's Castle) and the central part of the second act--the opera's midpoint, when Ariane shatters the windows and lets in the light. There is a very telling thematic transformation that Messiaen notes here, and it is not given its due - listen to Armin Jordan at these moments and you are in no doubt. Despite this, it is wonderful to hear this opera in such sumptuous and detailed sound, and it is maybe as a concert or recorded opera that this singular work is best appreciated. 


 © Julian Grant 2007  


The warm applause for the singers and orchestra at the conclusion of the first night of Dukas and Maeterlinck's rarely staged 'Ariane et Barbe-Bleue' (Sept 13) was terminated when the production team came on take a bow; the audience responded with an unanimous barrage of booing and shouting. At last: a moment of high drama in what had been a rather torpid evening. Though the production was largely to blame, Maeterlinck's custom built libretto is problematic. Written as a vehicle for his wife, Georgette Leblanc, Ariane is conceived as a heroic paragon without flaw, hesitation or introspection: the result, in Dukas' declamatory and sometimes wearing vocal writing, is a marathon: impressive, but devoid of psychology or progression.  Bluebeard is no foil for her: he sings a few phrases at the end of Act 1 and is a silentpresence in the final act. The lesser characters function as a chorus and are not well differentiated. The symbols are abtruse, not at all psychological and the effect is decorative and static. It is a work that needs help and real imagination to overcome pacing problems and the elusive visual poetry, which draws from Dukas some music of real power and inspiration. Unfortunately Anna Viebrock's production and design, in tandem with David Finn's lighting, and Till Exit's video, was totally underwhelming. Visually, we were treated to a dreary set of classrooms or laboratories, neon-lit. The single set made the narrative progression of the opera incomprehensible - the wives were liberated from their underground cavern in Act 2, and were found in the same space, albeit superficially transformed, in Act 3.  The progression of doors and cascades of jewels, so thrillingly depicted in the orchestra, were boringly lit, neither an adequate visual correlation of the sumptuous music, nor a distancing from it. The progression through the doors into compartmentalized classrooms led to the rear of the stage and back out to the front. Bluebeard's wives were revealed inhabiting her own classroom, though this conceit was only apparent by consulting a design in the programme booklet: from the stalls the sightlines were unclear: it also meant that none of the characters engaged with each other, as they were imprisoned in their own space, except for when they rather confusingly wandered into one another's domain, thus confusingly breaking the visual convention.  A drab video component (hidden cameras revealing odd corners onstage - a comment on surveillance, perhaps - or were the wives laboratory rats?) did nothing to add to the general effect.  Ariane, dressed -  maybe - as a roving reporter, with camera around her neck, spent most of the last act consulting some sort of document and not engaging with the newly liberated wives who were supposed to be being adorned by her. The 'so what' factor manifested itself very early in the eveningWhat was needed was some sort of theatrical sleight of hand, or magic - I would have thought a single solid set was a bad starting point for such a piece. The work was revived for its 100th birthday, and had not been seen in Paris since 1975 when Grace Bumbry performed the role of Ariane. Here, it was taken by Deborah Polaski, whose pedigree in the heaviest roles of Wagner and Strauss ensured that she had the stamina for such a mammoth, if ungrateful, undertaking. After a cloudy start, she displayed gleaming tone in all but the highest reaches. The supporting cast was uniformly strong, Julia Juon was a stentorian and opulent Nurse, who sounded as if she might graduate to Ariane any day now, and there were mellifluous contributions from the other wives, particularly Diane Axentii as Selysette. Willard White, no less, imbued Bluebeard with great presence, though one wonders what drew him to the role, as he has almost nothing to sing, and has to be silently beaten up in the last act. The orchestra under Sylvain Cambreling, clearly relished Dukas' virtuoso demands, and contributed to a lovingly shaped account of the score. I had long wanted to see this opera staged, in the hope that it could be made to work - in this inadequate guise it would have been better presented in concert. 


© Julian Grant 2007