Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Ariane and Bluebeard) (1907)

By John Ashbery

Written for the concert Bluebeard!, performed on April 25, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Paul Dukas’s Ariane et Barbe-bleue is one of a quasi-legendary sequence of turn-of-the-century French operas that have been rarely performed or recorded. Of these only Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande holds its place in today’s repertory. A few others can be heard on disk such as Fauré’s Penelope, Magnard’s Guercoeur, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus, and, fortunately, Ariane. But others such as the operas of the once mighty d’Indy and the delightful Déodat de Séverac have not, so far as I know, even been recorded.

One reason for the neglect is perhaps their by then somewhat dated Wagnerisme (Chausson wrote that “de-Wagnerism is necessary,” though he wrote it while working on Arthus, which sounds at times like a French version of Schoenberg’s still-to-come Gurrelieder, that last gaps of sumptuous Wagnerism). Another reason no doubt is the paucity of dramatic action in these operas, as opposed to contemporaneous ones by Puccini, Mascagni, and a host of now forgotten Italian verismo composers, whose works garnered success wherever they were performed. The French operas dealt with myth and spiritual quests, and perhaps seem static when staged, though except in the case of Pelléas it is difficult to know. Still, Ariane must have been a stunning spectacle, with its cascades of different jewels and (shades of Frankenstein) angry villagers smashing the windows of the palace to get at the wounded Bluebeard, “unmanned,” perhaps, by Ariane’s “obeying other laws than his.” Other anomalies are the fact that only six wives are present (Ariane is the seventh; another, “the black fairy,” has mysteriously died; while the important character of the Nurse disappears mysteriously herself during a key scene of the opera). What is happening here? The unexpected plot twists and the eccentric beauty of the setting would surely have kept a drowsy audience awake: next to Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, Ariane is almost an action thriller.

But it is the searing, searching music that grasps the listener from the very beginning and makes Ariane Dukas’s masterpiece. Ironically it is all but unknown, while everyone, thanks in part to Mickey Mouse, knows that glittering bauble The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Luscious but pure as the cascade of diamonds that all but drowns the heroine, Dukas’s score brings his strange parable magnificently into focus, weaving a seamless fabric of music, pantomime, and poetry. When will some courageous opera company bring it to the stage? Meanwhile the best way to take it in is no doubt to shut one’s eyes and listen.