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.