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Paul DUKAS (1865-1935)
Ariane et Barbe-Bleue
(1900-1907) [114:32]
Lori Phillips (soprano) – Ariane; Patricia Bardon (mezzo) – La Nourice; Peter Rose (bass) – Barbe-Bleue; Laura Vlassak Nolen (mezzo) – Sélysette; Ana James (soprano) – Ygraine; Daphne Touchais (soprano) – Mélisande; Sarah-Jane Davies (soprano) – Bellangère; Graeme Danby (bass) – a peasant voice
BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leon Botstein
rec. Watford Colosseum, January 2007
TELARC CD80680 [68:48 + 45:32] 


I am thoroughly ashamed to have thought of Paul Dukas as a Mickey-Mouse composer for so long – only because of the association of a musical rodent with his tone poem on Goethe’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice. But somehow I managed to ignore him to the point that if someone had told me that he was Czech, I might well have believed it. Beyond the Apprentice I had some foggy awareness of a ballet score La Péri, and nothing else. 

That frightful ignorance has been put to an end to by the overdue exposure to his opera Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, a different take on the story that Bartók deals with in his contemporaneous Bluebeard’s Castle. Why it took until 2007 for the first good recording of this wonderful opera to appear is anyone’s guess – perhaps I am not the only one in having (had) a patronizing prejudice toward the name “Dukas”. A 25 year old recording by Armin Jordan/Erato is long out of print, the 40 year old recording under Tony Aubin/Gala weak in most aspects. 

Leon Botstein is making something of a habit out of bringing out-of-favor and out-of-repertoire 20th century operas back to our attention. Thankfully he has a supportive record company at his side to aid him in these efforts. Richard Strauss’s Die Liebe der Danae and Die Ägyptische Helene and Ernest Chausson’s gorgeous Le Roi Arthus have already been issued over the last years. Now Telarc has released Ariane et Barbe-Bleu.

Dukas composed turn-of-the-century French music, a tad old fashioned (like Saint-Saëns and Fauré, maybe), yet achieving colors not unlike Debussy, whose Pelléas et Mélisande came out five years prior to Ariane. And behind this opera’s shadowy, gloomy veil are moments of ethereal beauty not found anywhere else … not even in Erich Korngold (see below).

Lori Phillips navigates through the extensive, difficult, beautiful and taxing part of Ariane with aplomb and then some. Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is essentially a one-woman show, with guest appearances by her nurse (Patricia Bardon), the other wives of Bluebeard, and Bluebeard himself (Peter Rose), who has a total of eight lines. The liner notes (David Murray, Leon Botstein, and John Ashbery) point out the women’s liberation struggle that is portrayed in this opera. Indeed, the Maeterlinck libretto (originally intended for Edward Grieg) could well be seen that way. Ariane discovers the previous five wives – not ghosts yet – of Bluebeard and attempts to instill in them newly gained self esteem in them and lead them to liberty. But the wives, despite having been forced to spend years in a miserable dungeon, refuse to leave Bluebeard. 

Talk about “Escape from Freedom” – years before Erich Fromm gave us the analysis for this curious behavior. Ariane herself, also thrown into prison but escaping easily, does not go for revenge, either. When Bluebeard, who is beleaguered and thrashed by the peasant folk like Dr. Frankenstein or Count Dracula, is injured and at her mercy in Act III, she nurses him to health before she leaves him behind with the five immobile (ex?) wives. 

Leon Botstein conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Singers in an idiomatic, highly professional performance. In combination with the rarity of the opera and the beauty of the music it all adds up to the best opera recording of the year. 

Jens F. Laurson 

see also Review by Tony Haywood



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