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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Ariane et Barbe-Bleu (1907)
Ariane – Lori Philips (soprano); Barbe-Bleu – Peter Rose (bass); La Nourrice – Patricia Bardon (mezzo); Sélysette – Laura Vlasak Nolan (mezzo); Ygraine – Ana James (soprano); Mélisande – Daphne Touchaise (soprano); Bellangčre – Sarah-Jane Davies (soprano)
BBC Singers; BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
rec. Watford Coliseum, England,  January 2007
Text and translation included
TELARC CD 80680 [68:56 + 54:43]

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.

Another reference 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.
Tony Haywood


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