Frenchman Paul Dukas’ 1907 opera “Ariane & Bluebeard” possesses compelling music and a libretto rich with symbolism and open to varied interpretation. Although advocates for the opera included many prominent composers of the day, its success was limited from the outset, and it has failed to find a place in the repertory. Plausible explanations exist. One is that it was drowned out during its infancy by two operas that competed in a similar space from more eminent composers. Like Debussy’s “Pelléas and Mélisande” from 1902, it used a Maurice Maeterlinck libretto that was also based on one of his plays. Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle” in 1911 was based on the same primary inspiration as Dukas’, “Le Barbe bleu” by Charles Perrault. Another explanation is that Dukas being partly Jewish, discrimination played a role. In subsequent times, the argument is that artistic directors’ comfort levels inhibit taking risks on less familiar properties. Happily, West Edge Opera does not fall in that category, and it presents a scintillating interpretation of the highly worthy “Ariane & Bluebeard.”
Librettist Maeterlinck was associated with the Symbolist literary movement that confronted the prevailing naturalism with message-associated allegory. The many symbolic representations in this work begin with the music which is robust from the opening note and softens over the course of the opera. In the story, Bluebeard has had five wives. The presumption is that he has killed them all, but he has actually imprisoned them in a windowless cellar. This darkness is represented by the loud, harsh music which ultimately turns to light as the women are released from their imprisonment.
Accordingly, the early part of the opera also contains an uncommonly low tessitura delivered by only three principal voices. The extremely dominant and hugely demanding role throughout is that of Ariane, portrayed by mezzo Renée Rapier, whose voice is exquisite with a great deal of singing in the lower range. The other major, flawless, and low range vocal contribution is from Nurse, sung by contralto Sara Couden. Title character Bluebeard has a great deal of stage time to display his vanity, his dominance, and perhaps his insecurity, yet his singing role is very small. However, when called upon for a bottom range baritone vocalization, Philip Skinner delivers. Each of these three are magnificent, and similar attributes can be applied to all three. How many times can you say deep, warm, resonant, powerful voice?
Despite warnings, Ariane becomes Bluebeard’s sixth wife. He bequeaths her seven door keys to rooms that hold his treasures. She may use the six that are silver but not the one that is gold. Unlike previous wives, Ariane has no interest in the silver keys, but Nurse uses them to reveal rooms full of glorious gems – sapphires in one, rubies in another, and so on. Only the last elicits any reaction from Ariane with her aria “O mes clairs diamants!” (“Oh, my clear diamonds!”). Such a sequence could prove visually dramatic, even using projections. Sadly, the colorful display that would be revealed by an outpourings from a wall of doors is invisible (except figurative projections of diamonds). This vision is left to the imagination of the viewer in this production.
The diamond vault reveals the door that can be opened by the gold key, which leads Ariane to the dark chamber that houses the former wives. This courageous action is analogous to the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden story from the Bible. Like Eve, Ariane is forbidden only one thing, yet that is the one that she yearns for. The traditional interpretation of the Biblical tale is that Eve yielded to temptation, but like Ariane, the willingness to defy the restriction represents self-actualization and the pursuit of learning and independence. Happiness and fulfillment cannot be given, as by the six silver keys, but must be taken, as by the gold key – or by the forbidden fruit. Without the defiance of the stricture, Ariane would have no way to open the world to the wives, as Eve would have no way to give Adam and herself, as well as the humanity that followed, a meaningful reason to live.
Even before the wives come into view, Ariane and Nurse are greeted by the strains of their anxious ensemble “Les cinq filles d’Orlamonde,” (“The five maidens from Orlamonde”) which begins the lighter overall musical tone, as most of the wives are sung by sopranos. The wives have not attempted to escape, as their fear has led to inaction. Bluebeard has forced Ariane to join the wives, but her determination will lead them to the light. Ariane is not only concerned with challenging patriarchy and liberating the wives but in liberating Bluebeard from his impediments as well. The malaise of the wives and the eventual reconciliation with Bluebeard reflect the condition of minorities and women in societies who are subject to discrimination. Majority populations often fail to realize that lifting the underprivileged, or allowing them to lift themselves, results not only their betterment, but the betterment of all of society.
“Ariane & Bluebeard” possesses a compact narrative and melodious music that are lifted by outstanding voices. Expansive blocking, which uses all of the stage and more, includes a chase scene on foot that extends into the lower gallery of the house. One clumsy aspect of the production is the use of the same core staircase as in “Julius Caesar” but with different decorative framing. While it offers a smooth egress in the other opera, players in this one unceremoniously stagger up and down the structure, even stumbling. A clever aspect of the staircase is that it disassembles into pieces that characters lounge upon.
The Jonathan Khuner conducted orchestra provides a full, clean sound for Dukas’ music. Together with the other elements, the result is a totally enjoyable experience.
“Ariane & Bluebeard” composed by Paul Dukas, with libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck as adapted from his play which draws from the literary tale ” Le Barbe bleu” by Charles Perrault is produced by West Edge Opera and plays at Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Drive, Oakland, CA through August 6, 2022.