This is the opera
recording that many lovers of the late-Romantic idiom have waited
for. The notoriously self-critical Dukas is known to the general
public basically for The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Even more experienced music-lovers can perhaps add to that the
Piano Sonata, La Péri and maybe the Symphony. But the
composer really considered Ariane et Barbe-Bleu his masterpiece
and the fact that it’s hardly ever mounted in the opera house
means that a decent recording is paramount.
Actually, just to
qualify the above, it has been recorded in stereo by the ever-reliable
Armin Jordan on Erato, a version I haven’t heard and which appears
to have been deleted; similarly one from 1968 conducted by Tony
Aubin. It has also been produced by Opera North in the early
1990s, again not seen by me but generally given a somewhat muted
reaction at the time, at least by the public. This could be
because it’s a symbolist piece, where stage action takes second
place to psychological drama. Mood and atmosphere are the key
words here, and in this sense it works well as a ‘gramophone’
opera, in much the same way as its much more famous counterpart,
Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, does.
that used to intrigue me was that of Erich Korngold, who obviously
revered this opera and is quoted in Brendon Carroll’s biography
‘The Last Prodigy’ as having ‘lived off Dukas’ Ariane
for years’. He was referring to the orchestration, which is
indeed one of its main strengths, but I reckon Korngold was
being typically mischievous as he was very much his own man
in the orchestra department. Still, if he did ‘pinch’ anything,
I can’t think of a better work to choose. The sound-world is
indeed sumptuous, with thrillingly imaginative use of every
instrumental family. It has been said that this opera is top
heavy, and I guess I can hear what is meant: this piece glitters
in the manner of Russian masters, particularly Rimsky, with
a smattering of early Stravinsky - same influence - and Strauss.
There are also occasional flecks of colour that echo his French
countrymen, which was probably inevitable given that Dukas’
librettist, Maurice Maeterlinck, also provided Debussy with
his text for Pelléas, which is quoted in and among, as
is La Mer (track 4, 2:31). Still, it’s very hard at times
to categorise, as Dukas, like Korngold, is also his own man.
I suppose what I’m saying is that the orchestral tapestry with
vocal lines woven in is a prime pleasure, at least on first
acquaintance, and here is where the excellent BBC playing and
modern recording really do the work justice.
The odd thing about
this treatment of the Bluebeard legend is that in Maeterlinck’s
libretto for Dukas, his character only makes the briefest
of appearances, leading some commentators to see this as a feminist
version of the story. I’m not sure about that slant, but certainly
the women, and particularly Ariane, dominate. She’s ever-present
in an vocally exceptionally demanding role, one in which Lori
Philips acquits herself well. She characterises beautifully as
she tries to uncover Bluebeard’s past, taking us around his castle
with all its colour and wonder, enunciating the text with precision
and feeling. If the lower range taxes her somewhat – Dukas does
ask for a mezzo – then she compensates in every other way. Dublin-born
Patricia Bardon’s Nurse does have a true mezzo, and when Ariane
is singing in those lower registers, the two overlap almost as
one, which may have been intentional. The same thing happens in
Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, so one has to
follow the text very closely. Of the other wives who feature,
the standout is Ana James’ Ygraine, sensual and richly opulent.
There’s also a telling contribution from the chorus, especially
near the opening.
As I write this, the
BBC have just broadcast this very recording in its entirety on
Radio 3’s afternoon programme, and it’s bound to win new friends
for the work. Whatever one makes of the libretto – and there’s
no doubt to me that Bartók’s opera is dramatically tauter – there
are some wonderful things here. It’s always a pleasure to welcome
a relative rarity into the mainstream. With its exemplary booklet
and wide-ranging sound quality, this is something Botstein’s superb
new version should surely achieve.