Ariane et Barbe-bleue

In the ground-breaking musical vanguard dominated by Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Bartók, the name of Paul Dukas does not feature in any body’s list. Nonetheless, he can be credited with being the composer of arguably one of the most original operatic masterpiees to appear in the wake of the fin-de-siècle musical revolution: Ariane et Barbe-bleue (or, Ariane and the Bluebeard), based on the text/libretto for the symbolist play of the same name by Maurice Maeterlinck.

Paul Dukas

Yet, Paul Dukas is not often mentioned in any serious musical consideration. Why is thiis relative neglect? Of course, it has partly to do with his overwhelmingly popular favorite The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Though almost everybody knows this piece, very few people know much about any of his lesser known works like the ballet La Péri, or the C-major Symphony, and fewer still know about Ariane et Barbe-bleue, his only opera. There is undeniably some form of musical snobbery involved as well.

However. Dukas was also known to have been notoriously diffident and the harshest critic of his own works, not only withholding publication of any works for a long period of time, but also destroying many musical manuscripts before his death, although he was a successful musical academic, teaching orchestration and composition at the Paris Conservatoire, in addition to being an avowed composer and music critic.

Not suirprisingly, Dukas must have considered himself anachronistic in his musical language, which he might have judged conservative and post-Wagnerian, out of sync with the music of the other composers in vogue at that time, and therefore subject to critical and popular rejection. In hindsight, Dukas appeared to have misanticipated the impact of his own music. However anachronistic, his music is in many ways unique in its blending of Debussy’s symbolist language with Wagnerian leitmotifs, to produce a stunningly gorgeous sound world.

Ariane et Barbe-bleue the Opera

Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, first published in 1899, was in the form of an opera libretto initially reserved for Edvard Grieg. However, when Grieg declined, Maeterlinck offered the score to Paul Dukas who was very impressed by the play when it first appeared. Dukas worked from 1899 until 1906 on the opera, which was premiered in May 1907 at the Opéra comique in Paris, wirh Maeterlinck’s partner Georgette Leblanc in the title role.

This work has often been compared with Debussy’s sole opera Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), also based on Maeterlinck’s eponymous play insofar as they share the mysterious lidioms and ideas of symbolism, where images, symbols, gestures and atmospheric settings are more important than any action on stage. Also, Maeterlinck borrowed names for Bluebeard’s wives from his other plays, and one of them, Mélisande of course comes from Pelléas, although this is a minor character, Dukas in fact borrowed a musical theme for Mélisande from his friend Debussy’s opera.

There is also an interesting parallel to this work in Béla Bartók’s only opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle composed few years after Ariane, which was also inspired by Maeterlinck. Bartók’s librettist Béla Balázs was a Maeterlinck devotee who wrote a slightly altered Bluebeard - also originally for another composer, Kodály, - with quite a different twist in its tale, but with the same yearning for freedom, from a different protagonist Judith replacing Ariane.

The source of the story can be traced back to the original fairy tales by Charles Perrault from circa 1697, or numerous variations on the same or similar stories still extant in folk traditions. The character of Barbe-bleue was already a folk legend by the time Perrault published his narrative, and it is widely believed to have been based on the historic figure of Gilles de Rais who was a marshall of France and served under Joan of Arc, and who was a French national hero for driving the English out of France. After the crowning of the Dauphin and the death of Joan of Arc, Gilles de rais settled into his estate and turned into a sadistic deviant, practicing Alchemy and black magic, and increasingly enjoying killing, usually by decapitation, young boys after he had sodomized them. He confessed to killing at least 140 at his trial, before he was burned alive and simultaneously hanged for his crimes in October 1440.

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The story revolves around “Bluebeard” the mysteriously rich and ugly Duke, and his most recent and sixth wife Ariane who has just arrived with her nurse at the lavish hall of Barbe-bleue where they are greeted offstage by a chorus of peasants who believe that Barbe-bleue has murdered his former wives. But Ariane thinks they are still alive, and without much ado manages to disperse the peasants.

Barbe-bleue has given Ariane the keys to different areas of the castle, six silver keys to various treasure chambers which Ariane may peruse as she wished, but another one, the golden Key, to a secret chamber, she is strictly forbidden to use. Ariane vows to go for the golden key, and she goes looking for the appropriate seventh door while her nurse opens the first six doors one by one, finding at each turn of the key cascades of various rich gems, jewels and other rare treasures, until she comes to the sixth door which, apart from offering a profusion of gigantic diamonds, reveals the vault containing the seventh door to Ariane. Ignoring her Nurse’s warning, Ariane turns the golden key in the lock of the seventh door. At first she finds nothing but darkness, but then gradually a faint and stifled sound emerges from down below, sounding like disembodied voices. The voices belong to Barbe-bleue’s other wives singing a folk song, which terrifies the Nurse who tries to shut the door, but fails to move the heavy door as the voices draw nearer.

At the end of the song Barbe-bleue enters. Furious, he blames Ariane for her act of disobedience, telling her she is thus abandoning her chances of happiness he has offered her. Ariane replies that her happiness cannot thrive in the shadows. Barbe-bleue then grabs her by the arm dragging her towards the seventh door, at which point the furious peasants smash the windows and break into the hall to confront Barbe-bleue, who draws his sword in defence. But Ariane pacifies them, calmly reasoning that Barbe-bleue has not done her any harm, and then closing the door on them.

The next act opens in the underground vault with the seventh door shut behind Ariane and her nurse leaving them in darkness, which Ariane tries to dispel with a little lamp. Gradually they get used to seeing in the darkness, and Ariane discovers other wives variously cowering in the dark hall, covered in rags, and terrified but all alive. She tries to familiarise herself with them, and asks them if they ever tried to escape. They denied, giving various reasons and excuses. Suddenly, Ariane’s lamp is extinguished by a drop of water. Lost in the darkness, Ariane can still make out a faint source of light, coming from behind a dirty stained glass window pane, and grabbing a piece of stone she smashes the panes one by one, flooding the scene with bright cheerful light and vistas of a free world, with sound of the sea, and bird songs coming from trees, while in a green landscape of a village square the clock strikes midday. Ariane asks them not to be afraid, but to follow her along the stone steps leading down to the outside world.

However, the magic defences in the castle has prevented the wives’ escape, and, as the next act opens, they find themselves back in the hall, where they sidle closer to Ariane for courage. Barbe-bleue is not anywhere to be found. So, Ariane dresses up the other wives, decorating them with the various gems and ornaments found behind the first six doors, teaching them the art of self adornment for pleasure. The Nurse comes in, announcing that Barbe-bleue is on his way.They look out of the window to see Barbe-bleue’s carriage being ambushed by the angry peasants, Barbe-bleue’s bodyguard is cut down and he is badly beaten. The peasants break down the castle door, and enter with Barbe-bleue roped up. At the sight of all the six wives they fall silent and willingly turn over their captive to Ariane so that she can exact vengeance. Ariane thanks them, and bids them to leave the castle.

The other wives suddenly get busy caring for the wounded Barbe-bleue, before Ariane cuts his bond with a dagger. The freed Barbe-bleue cannot do anything but gaze at Ariane, who bids him “farewell”, upon which he tries to make a feeble attempt to stop her, but then relents in the end. Ariane asks the other wives if they would like to follow her. None of them accepts the offer; Ariane leaves with her nurse, leaving behind them the other wives gazing at each other, then at Barbe-bleue who slowly lifts up his head.

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A Revolutionary Opera

In many respects, Ariane et Barbe-bleue is indeed a revolutionary opera, especially when considering the post-modern psychological aspects of the inner conflict between the desire for freedom and the tendency to prolong the laissez-faire of the status quo, so obvious in Barbe-bleue’s other wives who, given the chance to escape to freedom, instead decide to stay back to tenderly bind the wounds of their erstwhile torturer. So, the message of “Women’s Lib” is shrouded in ambiguity to the end.

. Critical acclaim was mostly positive at the beginning. In a performance conducted by Alexander von Zemlinsky at the Vienna Volksoper in April 1908, Arnold Schoenberg, accompanied by Alban Berg and Anton Webern, was among the highly enthusiastic audience, and all three expressed great admiration for the music. However, the initial enthusiasm somehow subsided during the mid-twentieth century, especially since the emergence and ascendency of Bartók’s Bluebeard, which was arguably more “modern” and daring in harmonic inventions.

However, there has recently been a groundswell of appreciation for Paul Dukas, and his sole opera, with news of new productions and release of new recordings. For the sound of this music per se is truly a treat for the ear: sumptuous, incisive, atmospheric, colorful, and intense. The idiom is not only post-Wagnerian, but in a sense post-Debussyan as well. Isn’t it about time we forgot easy categorization of music, and enjoy the unique sound of the arguably “anachronistic” music of Paul Dukas?

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