Ariane et Barbe-bleue
Charbonnet, Bardon, Coma-Alabert; van Dam; Orchestra and Chorus of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Denève. Production: Guth. Opus Arte OA 1098 D, 120 mins., subtitled
Paul Dukas's powerful opera derives from a better Maurice Maeterlinck play than does Pelléas et Mélisande. Maeterlinck wrote Ariane as a vehicle for his lover and muse, Georgette Leblanc, who was also featured in the world premiere of Dukas's opera in 1907. Ariane's first appearance on DVD is welcome, even if Claus Guth's 2011 anomie-laced Regie staging for Barcelona's Liceu stints both visually and emotionally. It's another "ripped from the headlines of bourgeois horror" job, playing on imagery of recent European enforced confinements and familial rapes. This is not an unintelligent choice, but in the first place, the opera is too ill-known to profit from "revision," and moreover Guth's sometimes striking execution of the concept proves uneven. Barbe-bleue's suburban "villa" shows little trace of the nature outside (central in Maeterlinck) save for red roses in various shades of decay.
Fortunately, conductor Stéphane Denève and the very strong Liceu Orchestra (expert in solo passages featured on camera) do justice to the well-wrought, exciting score. Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet's metallic voice manifests heavy vibrato on any sustained tone, sometime pulling down pitch on the highest notes. One must praise her sheer vocal stamina — Ariane never leaves the stage — but her actual tone provides little to enjoy, save in some soft passages. Set against that, Charbonnet is an excellent diseuse, phrasing the music and text with great precision; her acting is inspired and inspiring, very much to the point. Irish mezzo Patricia Bardon, also comfortable with the French idiom, sounds very good as the Nurse (uniformed with black stockings but otherwise matching Ariane in clothes, blonde hair and makeup). José van Dam emerges from retirement as the menacing (businessman?) Barbe-bleue, sounding rather gray and hollow but expressive in his eight (!) lines. When Ariane defies Barbe-bleue, he pushes her against the wall, rips off two layers of her outer garments, then falls kneeling. When Ariane says of Barbe-bleue (mobbed by the villagers as per Maeterlinck), "Il est blessé," Guth (cleverly) seems to intend her to mean that metaphorically.
Act II finds Ariane in a lowered basement on a black, sacrifical-looking slab, ringed by candles, with wooden-plank cage doors behind her. She soon perceives the other wives — all dark-haired and crazy-looking, with faded wedding bouquets. Rather than the still-lovely women Maeterlinck describes, Guth styles them as skittish madhouse harpies, obsessively rubbing, scratching and rocking. Alladine, foreign and silent, hugs a limp doll. These clichés distract from and diminish Ariane's liberationist project, making her sanity questionable in not noticing their madness. Dark mezzo Gemma Coma-Alabert (Sélysette) shows fine artistry; the level of sung French is pleasingly high. Act II's wonderful climaxes, as Ariane leads the wives to the freedom they later reject, here fall visually flat. She "breaks" windows, but we just see flashing-light effects. The wives sing of sea, sky and sun, but nothing opens; instead, pines and snow are projected on the inner walls. Act III's offstage battle yields more Snake Pit antics under shifting lights, with the undershirted Barbe-bleue tied to a bed, the Nurse staying in the asylum. Reservations stated, this DVD and Dukas's opera merit exploration.
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