Notes and Editorial Reviews
Live performances being rare this CD is a worthy substitute.
To most ‘ordinary’ classical music listeners Paul Dukas is synonymous with L'apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer's Apprentice) (1897), based on Goethe's poem "Der Zauberlehrling”. Its vivid story-telling and colourful orchestration made it very popular and an attractive show-piece for good orchestras. Through Walt Disney’s Fantasia it also reached audiences far beyond the traditional classical public. But he wasn’t just a ‘one-work-composer’. He was at least periodically quite prolific but also extremely self-critical and only a handful of works were ever published. His Symphony in C (1896) is a splendid work in three movements. His last work of any
importance, the oriental ballet La Péri should attract lovers of colourful orchestral music. There is an excellent disc with Leonard Slatkin and Orchestre National de France, comprising the three works mentioned above, plus a Fanfare to be played before the ballet (BMG 09026 68802 2).
His sole opera, Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, is based on a French fairy-tale which originally appeared in Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma mêre l’Oye (1697) and also found its way into the first edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812). The libretto was written by Maurice Maeterlinck, who was very much á la mode around the turn of the last century. Debussy’s only opera Pélleas et Melisande, with which Dukas’s work has similarities, was an abridged version of Maeterlinck’s successful play. The story has been set by others: Offenbach’s three-act operetta Barbe-Bleue (1866) and Bëla Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (composed 1911, premiered 1918) are the best known, I suppose. Compared to Bartók’s dark expressionist work with only two characters – Blue-Beard and Judith, where Blue-Beard in his loneliness is easy to pity – in Dukas’s opera the evil Blue-Beard is marginalised. It is the mentally strong Ariane who dominates the proceedings but her sisters in misfortune also play important parts. As is hinted at in the accompanying notes, the opera might be seen as an early contribution to the Women’s Lib movement - in its infancy at the time. In the last resort, however, it is only Ariadne who chooses freedom and leaves the castle whereas the other wives stay.
Dukas’s music for this drama has influences from Debussy and Wagner but it is darker and more overtly dramatic than Debussy’s, which I have always found a little too perfumed. Brilliant orchestrator that he was, Dukas uses the full orchestral palette to stunning effect. Although he is basically an impressionist – but with more luminous colours and sharper outlines – he doesn’t fight shy of more expressionist language. Generally this is a musically strong and dramatically taut work and those who claim that, next to Pelléas et Mélisande, it is the best 20th century French opera have a lot going for their argument. Personally I would still vote for Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites. Where Dukas especially impresses is in the dramatic choral scenes, as in the opening of the opera. The women’s chorus in the last act and the purely orchestral music – not least the heartrending Prélude to act two – are extremely engaging.
Bertrand de Billy is a strong advocate for the work in this live recording from a concert performance in the Vienna Concert Hall. The sound is vivid enough and chorus and orchestra are splendid. It might be seen as a drawback, maybe, that neither is a French ensemble and that among the soloists there isn’t a single native French speaker. Only the Paris-born conductor has the right credentials. Those who must have the Gallic flavour should know that there is – or at least has been – a purely French recording on Erato under Armin Jordan and with Gabriel Bacquier as Barbe-Bleue. That said, I found the present cast highly convincing.
Any performance of this opera stands or falls with the role of Ariane. Deborah Polaski may have been a little past her best, showing some unsteadiness early in the performance but she grows during the evening. In the sensual Wagnerian finale, the celebrated Isolde is truly magnificent. Jane Henschel evades disappointment and she is an impressive Nurse. Well established names like Ruxandra Donose and Stella Grigorian live up to their reputations. The young Ileana Tonka and Nina Bernsteiner are excellent in their roles. Kwangchul Youn also does what he can with Barbe-Bleue’s rather chopped about part.
Dukas’s only opera has never really won a foothold in the standard repertoire but it is well worth the acquaintance. With the prospects for live performances rather limited the present recording is a worthy substitute.
-- Göran Forsling, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas
Jane Henschel (Voice),
Erik Arman (Voice),
Nina Bernsteiner (Voice),
Kwangchul Youn (Voice),
Stella Grigorian (Voice),
Ileana Tonca (Voice),
Deborah Polaski (Voice),
Ruxandra Donose (Voice),
Markus Raab (Voice),
Ante Jerkunica (Voice)
Bertrand De Billy
Slovak Philharmonic Choir,
Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1899-1906; France
Date of Recording: 05/05/2006
Venue: Wiener Konzerthaus
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