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.

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

By Leon Botstein

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

One of the only truly genuine twentieth-century prodigy composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, took pride in his originality, particularly during his years as a composer for the movies. Many of his successful colleagues in that genre stole shamelessly from the masters of great music. In a moment of rare candor, however, Korngold is reputed to have confided to a friend that many of the ideas in his best music were borrowed from Paul Dukas’s only opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue. Korngold’s admiration for Dukas’s opera was by no means unique. Richard Strauss, generally not an admirer of the French tradition of composition, singled out Dukas for particular praise. The opera was also held in high regard by Arnold Schoenberg and Alexander von Zemlinsky, and more recently found one of its most ardent defenders in Dukas’s pupil, Olivier Messiaen.

Why, then, is this opera so rarely performed either in concert version or on the stage? It enjoyed a fabulous start, including an American premiere performance by Arturo Toscanini with Geraldine Ferrar at the Metropolitan Opera. We always want to believe that the standard repertory reflects the enduring best of music. If something is not standard and popular, we often assume that there must be a good reason. But that is frequently not the case. The truth is that in the performing arts, particularly music, what remains in the standard repertoire is the result of habits and tastes that have as much to do with convenience and prejudice as with anything we might call quality. If we listen to Ariane, we might have difficulty in finding enough fault with either the music or the libretto of this masterpiece to warrant its disappearance from the stage. The libretto was written intentionally for music and it is not only by a major literary figure (the author of Pelléas et Mélisande) but it also presents a view of the Bluebeard story that ought to make it particularly pertinent to late twentieth-century audiences. In this version, the woman triumphs and much of the opera presents a powerful portrait of an attempt at convincing other women to liberate themselves. In the end Ariane fails, and that in itself gives the opera a level of psychological subtlety that should propel it onto the contemporary stage.

The word masterpiece in relationship to Ariane et Barbe-bleue is used deliberately, in part because Paul Dukas rivaled Johannes Brahms in his puritanical self-criticism. Far fewer works by this composer survive than were written. He felt about his music as Gogol did about the sequel to Dead Souls, and many of Dukas’s compositions suffered the same fate. As a result, however, what remains of Dukas’s work are pieces that are nearly flawless in their construction and refinement. Yet if one asks the average listener what Dukas wrote, one will invariably hear one title: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897), and this most likely because it was appropriated into the same genre in which Korngold excelled–it became part of the film score for Disney’s Fantasia.

If contemporary audiences had more opportunity to hear Dukas’s C-Major Symphony (1896), or his early works for chorus and orchestra (which remain unpublished), or La Peri (1912), the ballet which may have been Dukas’s most successful work for the stage, they might be aware of Dukas as more than the musical support for a rather emotive mouse. Dukas’s posthumous reputation has also not been helped by the politics of French and European music. For instance, Dukas was born from a partly Jewish ancestry, and was not helped by the fact that one of the most powerful forces in late nineteenth-century French music was Vincent d’Indy, who, despite a nominal friendship with Dukas, was known to be as widely a propagator of virulent anti-Semitism as Richard Wagner. Furthermore, Dukas was exceptional in his complete lack of interest in his self-promotion. He was a taciturn and extremely private individual who married late in life (at age fifty-one) and fell largely silent as a composer in his later years. Unlike Strauss, Dukas felt no urge to be polemical by writing music in a manner that was provocatively out of step with the contemporary.

Despite the subtlety and profundity of its musical symbolism and the psychological depth of its rendition of the traditional story, Ariane et Barbe-bleue may have been relegated to obscurity because of unintentional competition from two other nearly contemporary works, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (1911) and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902). This conjecture is all the more disturbing when one considers it in context with the other fantastic riches in the operatic repertoire that await revival from the late nineteenth century, particularly in French music. Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus (1895), Fauré’s Penelope (1913), and the operas of Magnard and d’Indy also remain in the shadows. But when one hears the beauties of this score, the powerful representation of its characters’ tangled lives, and the masterful orchestration, the comparison should not be with other works that have fallen out of the repertory but with those that remain. The American Symphony Orchestra is proud to be able to present a twentieth-century masterpiece by a composer whose command of the craft of musical composition was consummate and whose unexpected modesty and artistic self-scrutiny merit not only our admiration, but possibly even a degree of awe.

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

By David Murray, Music Journalist, The Financial Times

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

Almost everybody knows The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (L’Apprenti sorcier), if only through Walt Disney’s Fantasia–which somewhat disarranged the score; some concert-goers know the only Dukas ballet, La Péri, and fewer still Ariane et Barbe-bleue, his only opera; but hardly anybody knows much about Dukas (1865-1935). He was a little younger than Debussy, a little older than Roussel, and a whole decade older than Ravel. He was a lifelong composer and perceptive music-critic, and a good friend not only of the composers just mentioned, but of d’Indy, Fauré, Albéniz and other members of distinct and warring factions in Parisian music: no mean feat!

For two long stretches Dukas was a Professeur at the Paris Conservatoire, first teaching orchestration, and from 1928 composition (his best student was Olivier Messiaen). By that time he had published nothing but two tiny memorial-pieces in sixteen years, and never published anything again. Shortly before his death, he is said to have destroyed many manuscripts: of a second symphony, of chamber music and of an opera on The Tempest. That was surely our loss. The trouble seems to have been that he was too good a music-critic not to be terminally self-critical. Even with La Péri, his friends had to persuade him to let it be performed and not to burn it instead.

In the new musical climate established by Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartók, Dukas may well have judged his own “conservative” music–post-Wagnerian in harmony, post-ninteenth-century-Russian in its sumptuous sound, but still recognizably in the tradition of Franck and Saint-Saëns — to be passé. If he did, he was wrong to assume that we should want no more of it. The extraordinarily rich score of Ariane itself, his chef d’oeuvre (which took him almost seven years to write, before its Paris première in 1907), gives us reason enough to long wistfully after his lost later music.

Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, premièred 5 years earlier, Ariane has a mysterious libretto by Maeterlinck, and there is also a curious connection to Bartók’s only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle–composed by 1911, though it awaited its première for seven years more. Pelléas was originally a straight play, but Ariane was written specifically as an opera-libretto intended for Grieg, who turned it down before Dukas fell in love with it. Bartók’s young librettist Béla Balázs, a devoted Maeterlinckian and later a noted film-theorist, wrote his alternative Bluebeard originally for the composer Kodály; his text too, with a different twist in its tale, calls for a staging that consists of little more than dramatic lighting. In both operas the essential story is psychological, not picturesque.

In Bartók/Balázs, Bluebeard’s latest and last wife is “Judith” (think: and Holofernes!), who wants at any cost to know him completely but finds herself at last frozen away among memories of all his earlier wives. In Dukas/Maeterlinck she is “Ariadne” (think: the thread she laid down to guide Theseus out of the Labyrinth)–except that here, the benighted souls she aims to rescue are all the previous wives. This is quite literally a “Women’s Lib” drama, and yet it is strangely ambiguous. When the dreadful Bluebeard is at last bound and defeated, it is only Judith who strides away toward freedom; the other wives cannot tear themselves away from him, and stay on to bind his wounds tenderly. Liberation seems to be a lonely stance.

In either opera, the visible action is so minimal that little will be missed in a concert-performance. With Bartók/Balázs, it consists of the successive revelations at each of the first six doors–the “permitted” ones–of Bluebeard’s grandly disillusioned character, which generate all the drama until the final, shattering surprise at the forbidden seventh. In Dukas/Maeterlinck, however, those six doors disgorge only brilliant sidelights in Act I, cascades of rich gems (Ariadne isn’t interested) accompanied by variations on the “jewel” theme, with a further set of variations in Act III while she teaches each of the other wives to adorn themselves properly (“Life returns with the re-kindled desire to please!”). There is a potent whiff of Sapphic eroticism: much emphasized by Maeterlinck, discreetly reduced by Dukas. At the time, that was exotic but nervously popular stock-in-trade for French literature, theatre and opera, and it retains a power to disturb.

The real action is still Ariadne’s heroic struggle for Women’s Liberation, mirrored by Bluebeard’s angry, downtrodden peasants in Acts I and III. Musically, hers is a daunting role; she is on stage virtually throughout the action, singing at full mezzo cry. The only other principals, Bluebeard and her faithful Nurse–much like the Empress’s sinister Nurse in Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten–get far less to do: here the feisty Nurse fades out of earshot halfway through, while Bluebeard sings only eight lines in Act 1 and reappears not just chastened but utterly mute in Act III. Somehow these oddities reinforce the effect of a very peculiar, dark and gorgeous opera.