Beyond pale

Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue is a setting of a libretto by the symbolist poet and playwright Maeterlinck.  It’s roughly contemporary with both Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande and Strauss’ Salome.  It shows.  It really is a product of a particular fin de siècle world view.  Like Debussy’s piece, Ariane is loosely based on a folk tale.  In this case it’s the gory story of Duke Bluebeard and his six wives but here it’s curiously etiolated.  It’s as if Maeterlinck is reacting to the ultra-realism of, say, Zola, by retreating into a strange inner world.  It’s not even the troubled inner world of Freud or Jung either.  It’s colourless (and we’ll come back to that).  All this is reinforced by Maeterlinck’s style of telling rather than showing.  Much of what “action” there is takes place off stage and is narrated by the on stage characters.  Both words and music are used to fill in the gaps.

1.setIn Claus Guth’s production recorded in Barcelona in 2011 he out-Maeterlinck’s Maeterlinck.  What few visual stimuli Maeterlinck provides are here mostly expunged.  The fabulous treasures of the first six doors are here barely hinted at.  Bluebeard’s riches are replaced by a soft toy, a shawl and some cheap costume jewellery.  The magic castle is replaced by a suburban villa and the wives, Ariane included, wear simple shifts in light, neutral colours.  He uses a unit set with a skylight, six doors, a short staircase to the forbidden seventh floor and a hole in the floor to represent the cellar where the wives are imprisoned.  All this too is done up in neutral, light colours.  In Act 2 the outside world is barely hinted at by vague video projections but that’s it.  What we do get is frenziedly neurotic movement by the five imprisoned wives.  The overall effect is to place even more distance between audience and work which becomes an extended meditation by Ariane.  But on what?

2.cellarThe music is very late romantic. The influence of Wagner is clear and it sounds to me a lot like the sound world of the Gurrelieder.  There’s this sense of musical developments having been taken to their logical conclusion and having nowhere else to go except to wait for someone to invent serialism.  Indeed the whole enterprise feels a bit that way.  It’s rather like one of those Looney Tunes characters who has run off the end of a cliff but not realized it yet.

3.wivesEven if one has reservations about the piece, one must concede that everyone involved in this production gives their all.  The star is Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet as Ariane.  She’s on stage the whole time and probably has more music than everyone else put together.  She also has the only aria in the piece.  Everything else is Wagnerian recitative.  She sings accurately and strongly and with complete conviction.  She’s very well supported by a vey lush sounding Liceu orchestra under Stéphane Denéve.  The other vocal parts aren’t much more than cameos and José van Dam in the curiously minor role of Barbe-bleue seems like luxury casting taken to the extreme.

4.bluebeardThe recording was made in HD and is available on both DVD and Blu-ray.  My review copy was DVD and it’s technically not bad though the surround sound track seemed curiously muffled and I found the LPCM stereo option to be superior.  I’d expect better on the Blu-ray.  Pietro d’Agostino directs for video.  The set is not large and not much happens so it’s an easy production to capture and d’Agostino is fine.  There are no extras.  The booklet contains an essay and a synopsis but no track listing.  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish, Catalan, Japanese and Korean.

5.castleI doubt I’ll ever come to love Ariane et Barbe-bleue and this production rather tends to emphasize those elements I most dislike.  That said, this is the only video version available of this work and the performances are good.

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