Dukas – Ariane et Barbe-Bleue

0 of 5 stars

Ariane et Barbe-Bleue – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck

Ariane – Lori Phillips
The Nurse – Patricia Bardon
Barbe-Bleue – Peter Rose
Sélysette – Laura Vlasak Nolen
Ygraine – Ana James
Mélisande – Daphne Touchais
Bellangére – Sarah-Jane Davies
Old Peasant – Graeme Danby

BBC Singers

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein

Recorded January 2007 in the Colisseum, Watford

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: December 2007
CD No: TELARC CD-80680
(2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 54 minutes



“Ariane et Barbe-Bleue” is a very diverting listen! Paul Dukas (1865-1935) is probably best known for his scintillating orchestral work The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, immortalised for many by Walt Disney’s use of it for Mickey Mouse in “Fantasia”. Dukas was extremely self-critical and so little of his output survives as he destroyed much of what he wrote. We should count ourselves lucky that we have this one complete opera and that we now have a modern recording with which to familiarise ourselves with it.

This is indeed a fascinating score. From the brooding opening bars depicting Bluebeard’s castle and also the pulsing themes that herald the arrival of Ariane and her nurse though the angry (off-stage) crowd one soon realises that Dukas was a master of orchestral colouring, and also had a shrewd ability to depict atmosphere and mood in musical terms. There are moments of the glittering brightness familiar from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, such as the simultaneous opening of the first six doors (yes, all at once) and the cascade of gems the pour from them. These are contrasted with much that is hushed and eerie together with subtle use of off-stage and recessed voices and passages where there is a deep sense of menace.

Under Leon Botstein’s direction the varying paces of the music seem very well judged, and he maintains one’s interest in the story. The libretto, which was penned by Maurice Maeterlinck as an operatic text, has many characteristics similar to his text for “Pelléas et Mélisande” in that it presents strange situations in a somewhat symbolic fashion and challenges both characters and audience with questions or assertions that remain unanswered or unexplained. Those interested in exploring the continuity between the two will be fascinated by the appearance of Mélisande as one of Barbe-Bleue’s former wives. Although more conventionally operatic that its more famous sister-libretto, it is very strong on text and weak on action.

For that reason it is important that the singers are both clear and characterful, and can colour their voices to complement what the orchestra is telling you. A pretty fine cast has been assembled. Lori Phillips sings the hugely demanding female title-role with great stamina and with much finesse. Very occasionally she sounds under pressure and the voice develops a slight edge and fluttery quality, but thankfully these moments accord well with passages of dramatic tension and so does not mar the overall performance. Sometimes one wishes she had a slightly brighter, alluring and less covered tone, but the part requires the voice to encompass many low passages that would be considered mezzo territory, and yet there are many excursions well above the stave. She undoubtedly has the personality and youthfulness for this feisty character, and it’s hard to think of another singer who could muster any better all the attributes needed.

Barbe-Bleue himself is not the mysterious implacable character of Bartók’s Bluebeard, and the singer is not given much of an opportunity to depict a fully rounded character. Indeed Barbe-Bleue spends much of his time evading the angry crowd before being captured by them and delivered to the justice of his former wives, who are surprisingly merciful.

Is the underlying and uncomfortable message of the piece that a sexual victim remains entirely in their abuser’s thrall even when given the opportunity to exact revenge? Peter Rose manages to characterise as much as is possible, and does so in his characteristically full and generous bass. If anything he sounds almost too nice!

The other important role, at least in the early stages of the opera, is that of the nurse, here delivered in the appropriately lush and youthful tones of Patricia Bardon. The only drawback is that vocally she and Lori Phillips have rather similar tones and thus are not as well differentiated in their extended passages of dialogue.

The former wives are all well vocalised and make an attractive sound when first heard as an offstage group chanting a song about the five daughters of Orlamonde (deliberately similar to the Allemonde of the Pelléas story?), which has a pervasive theme that recurs quite often.

The other protagonist really is the orchestra. The BBC Symphony Orchestra is heard in one of its relatively rare excursions into opera. The playing is predictably assured and idiomatic and the strings in particular grasp all their many opportunities to shine, especially in the Debussy-like textures that pervade much of the score. That the other orchestral sections do not make quite such an impact is probably due more to the recorded balance, which seems to give the strings and particularly the voices a significant prominence. The acoustic seems a bit restricted; thus a passage such as Ariane’s opening the windows of the castle at the end of Act Two to bring daylight to and enlighten Barbe-Bleue’s former wives perhaps does not make the impact it should.

That being said this recording is a fascinating listen, and to see a staged performance would undoubtedly be interesting. There is an excellent booklet, with some interesting essays and notes by David Murray, John Ashbery and the conductor. Synopsis, text and translation included. Recommended.

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