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Dukas: Ariane Et Barbe-bleue / Bertini, Schmiege, Taillon, Baudoin

Dukas / Schmiege / Kennedy / Taillon
Release Date: 09/27/2011 
Label:  Capriccio Records   Catalog #: 7112   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Paul Dukas
Performer:  Marilyn SchmiegeRoderick KennedyJocelyne TaillonMitsuko Shirai,   ... 
Conductor:  Gary Bertini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio ChorusCologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DUKAS Ariane et Barbe-Bleue Armin Jordan, cond; Katherine Ciesinski ( Ariane ); Gabriel Bacquier ( Barbe-Bleue ); Mariana Paunova ( Nurse ); Hannah Schaer ( Sélysette ); Michelle Command ( Bellangère ); Anne-Marie Blanzat ( Ygraine ); Jocelyn Read more Chamonin ( Mélisande ); French RPO & Ch WARNER 2564 67497-8 (2 CDs: 118:00)

DUKAS Ariane et Barbe-Bleue Gary Bertini, cond; Marilyn Schmiege ( Ariane ); Roderick Kennedy ( Barbe-Bleue ); Jocelyn Taillon ( Nurse ); Cynthia Buchan ( Sélysette ); Francine Laurent ( Bellangère ); Monique Baudoin ( Ygraine ); Mitsuko Shirai ( Mélisande ); Cologne RSO & Ch CAPRICCIO 7112 (2 CDs: 120:22 Text and Translation)

DUKAS Ariane et Barbe-Bleue Bertrand de Billy, cond; Deborah Polaski ( Ariane ); Kwangchul Youn ( Barbe-Bleue ); Jane Henschel ( Nurse ); Ruxandra Donose ( Sélysette ); Ileana Tonka ( Ygraine ); Nina Bernsteiner ( Mélisande ); Stella Grigorian ( Bellangère ); Vienna RSO; Slovak PCh BRILLIANT 94254 (2 CDs: 116:15) Live: Vienna, 05/05/2006

Has the hour for Paul Dukas’s operatic masterwork finally struck? Its first recording—the Jordan recording listed above, originally issued by Erato—appeared only in 1984, and did not stay long in print, but between 2003 and the present four other recordings have appeared and the Jordan has now come back into the catalog. Of the five versions now available, the two not listed above need not detain us, albeit for different reasons. In 2003 the Gala label issued a live performance from 1968 led by a pupil of Dukas, Tony Aubin; unfortunately the vocal cast (Berthe Monmart, Marie Luce Bellary, Xavier Desprez, and Nadine Sautereau in the principal roles), conducting, and sound quality are all quite mediocre. In 2007 Telarc released a recording headed by the indefatigable Leon Botstein, with Lori Phillips, Patricia Bardon, Peter Rose, and Laura Vlasak Nolen as the leads; it was given a qualified recommendation by Adrian Corleonis in Fanfare 31:2 and a qualified panning by Joel Kasow in 31:3. Both reviews are well worth reading, though my judgment sides with Kasow; by comparison with any of the three performances to be discussed here, Botstein skates over the surface of the score in a competent but relatively superficial manner, while Lori Phillips, in Kasow’s words, “offers a solid performance, but lacks in radiance, while her voice tends to the monochromatic.” Despite their differences, each critic recommends the Jordan recording over the Botstein.

Since both Corleonis and Kasow discuss the music and plot in detail, I will refrain from doing so here. To begin with some technical details first, none of these three recordings are new, strictly speaking. The Warner set is a reissue of the 1984 Erato original; it has been reviewed no fewer than three times in Fanfare (7:5, 10:1, and 15:3), but none of those reviews have yet made it into the online archive. The midprice Capriccio set is a first-time publication taken from a series of March 1986 radio broadcasts, and the Brilliant Classics set is a licensing of a live stage performance issued on the Oehms label back in 2008. The Capriccio set has a trilingual libretto in French, German, and English; as budget reissues the Warner and Brilliant sets both have only brief plot summaries instead, and unlike some of its other reissues Warner has not made the libretto from the original Erato release available as a pdf file online. Given the complexity of the text (by the renowned symbolist poet Maurice Materlinck, who originally offered it to Edvard Grieg—–can anyone imagine a greater mismatch of composer and text?), plus its likely unfamiliarity to most prospective buyers, the lack of a libretto is a serious deterrent, though industrious souls can likely find one elsewhere. Also, the older Warner set splits act II over the two discs and has only eight cueing points per disc, whereas the other two sets both place all of acts I and II on the first disc and provide 20 cueing points for that and 10 on the second disc.

While I would not go as far as Laurence Davies (quoted and appropriately criticized by Corleonis) in declaring Ariane to be “the second finest of all French operas—yielding priority only to Pelléas et Mélisande ,” I do unhesitatingly declare it to be a truly great opera, a lofty, richly subtle, and ultimately sublime score that can hold its own against the likes of Wagner as well as Debussy. Why, then, has it not entered the standard repertoire? Most speculation (including that in the booklets of the Telarc, Capriccio, Oehms, and Brilliant sets) centers on suggestions that its putatively feminist (or even Sapphic) content is unappealing to conservative opera audiences. This is arrant nonsense, a typical forcible imposition of present-day social-political agendas upon an earlier era. Instead, I can do no better than to quote Corleonis at length, who in turn quotes the composer himself:

“With their brief appearances of Bluebeard and the intrusion of rebellious peasants—whom Ariane cows and dismisses—the first and third acts mirror one another with narrative inevitability. Between them, the second-act imprisonment of Ariane and her discovery of Bluebeard’s former wives is a cunningly wrought passage from darkness to light—the drama’s central archetype. In the mind’s eye—the mind’s ear—this unfolds compellingly if one is primed not for the predictable tropes passing for drama in most operas but for something resembling a mystery play. Then, too, Dukas mystifies, in quite another sense, disappointing those trying to make sense of Ariane as a commonplace feminist tract. The freed wives, at the end, prostrate themselves before Bluebeard and refuse Ariane’s offer to lead them away from his enchanted castle. ‘But from Ariane’s point of view,’ Dukas notes, ‘apart from the paltry puppets who serve as walkers-on, this rejection of freedom takes on a very pathetic tinge, which is what usually happens when a superior being who believes himself indispensable discovers that nobody needs his heroics and that mediocre solutions are sufficient for mediocre people. … The heroine has but one liberation left to accomplish … SHE LIBERATES HERSELF … triumphing over the pity that her ‘poor sisters’ inspired and leaves the castle on that note; very quietly and very sadly, just as it befits SUCH VICTORIES!’ … In the upshot, Ariane is best understood by those who stand alone, admire independence in others, and disdain all parti pris or engagé commitment. Thus, its parable will be impenetrable or unsympathetic to the vast majority at any time.”

To this eloquent and penetrating summary I will dare to add two comments. First, as a half-Jew who lived through the overt anti-Semitism of the Alfred Dreyfus scandal, Dukas may have been drawn to this theme as subtly mirroring his own sense of self-identity and position in French society. Second, there are very practical reasons Ariane remains a rarity on opera stages. It comes perilously close to being a two-hour monologue for its protagonist; the next largest role, that of the Nurse, sings less than half the music in act I and only a few lines in acts II and III. Barbe-Bleue symbolically has very little to sing (56 words, if I have not miscounted); of the imprisoned wives, only Sélysette has more than a few token lines, serving as de facto spokeswoman for the others. (Maeterlinck wrote the libretto to be a star vehicle for his mistress, Georgette Leblanc, who after the famous uproar following Debussy’s rejection of her for the role of Mélisande duly sang Ariane in the world premiere.) This is not only incredibly taxing on the singer who assumes the lead role, but also upon most listeners, as the lack of vocal contrast between male and female voices can quickly become wearying. Of operas dominated by either male or female voices, the only ones that have entered the standard repertoire are Puccini’s Suor Angelica , Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites , and Britten’s Billy Budd , all three of which also have a far more equitable distribution of vocal roles and registers than does Ariane . And yet, Dukas knew exactly what he was doing, and with the right protagonist his magnum opus can and should be nothing short of enthralling. (I was fortunate to catch the wonderful New York City Opera production with Botstein and Phillips in 2005, before that company’s present woes; it was far more gripping than the studio effort that followed.)

The success or failure of Ariane , then, rests upon the shoulders of its protagonist and the conductor; so how do these recordings compare to one another? Fortunately, all three have considerable merits, though in the end I will suggest a definite ranking. To deal with secondary matters first, all have strong casting in the comprimario roles. As for recorded sound, despite its digital provenance the Warner is relatively speaking a bit on the murky side compared to its rivals, though some might hold that to be an advantage in creating a more mysterious atmosphere. The Brilliant and Capriccio sets both offer more clarity of detail, with the latter also having more depth and resonance as well. Likewise, for casting in key secondary roles all three are fine, though again the order of preference goes from Warner in third position to Capriccio in first position. As Barbe-Bleue, Gabriel Bacquier was past his vocal prime but is still imposing, but Kwangchul Youn is even stronger, while Roderick Kennedy is absolutely perfect and makes an extraordinary impression with his few lines. In reviewing the Botstein set Joel Kasow dismissed Mariana Paunova as a “mealy-mouthed” Nurse; I find that somewhat harsh, but she does have the more opaque alto voice common to Slavic singers. Both Jane Henschel and Jocelyn Taillon have better French diction and thus make more of the text, with Henschel being a mezzo and Taillon an alto a shade lighter than Paunova; again Capriccio takes top honors with Taillon combining the best aspects of both of her competitors. Much the same can be said of the respective choral contributions, though here the rivalry is much closer. Paradoxically the diction of the Paris forces under Jordan is the least distinct, though Jordan draws from them the ominously potent but distant sound that the score prescribes; the other two ensembles articulate the texts with greater clarity, but that under de Billy has the disadvantage of sounding too up close due to its onstage presence, whereas once again that for Bertini captures a combination of the best qualities of the other two.

A choice between the conductors is harder to make, as all three are excellent. Their respective tempi are nearly identical at all points, and each has a keen ear for sectional balances and instrumental color, with a sure grasp of the score’s architecture and appropriate molding of that to highlight climactic moments. Jordan emphasizes elemental atmosphere over detail, and captures more of the ominous menace and enigmatic ambivalence of the characters’ relations than does either de Billy or Bertini; on the other hand the latter two score points over Jordan precisely in using detail to delineate particular moments with greater inflection, with Bertini coming out somewhat ahead. In short, does one prefer more to behold the forest or the trees? If forced to choose, my order of preference would be first Bertini, then Jordan, and then de Billy, though any of them is more than acceptable.

So far, then, the Capriccio set has consistently come out on top in the rankings, with Brilliant in second place and Warner a close third. But—and you probably sensed this was coming—all that changes when it comes to the role of Ariane. Quite simply, Catherine Ciesinski for Jordan equals or surpasses her two rivals interpretively and clearly bests them vocally. The score calls for a mezzo-soprano with an extended high register, which is exactly what Ciesinski is; though her competitors do have clearer diction, she has a complete command of the character and sings with vivid passion, rounded tone, and complete security up to a high A?. By contrast, Deborah Polaski is a dramatic soprano primarily known for singing Wagner and Richard Strauss, while Marilyn Schmiege is a lyric soprano assuming a more dramatic role. Heretofore I have sedulously avoided Polaski, finding her singing unappealing due to an unstable upper register, and fully expected the worst here. I was therefore pleasantly surprised when her entrance in act I showed her to be both fully in command of her vibrato and deeply involved in her character, and I settled into my chair, anticipating a first-rate interpretation contrary to my anticipations. Alas, upon reaching the act I showpiece aria “Ô mes clairs diamants!” an ugly spread in the vibrato immediately appears in her upper and middle registers and persists to the end of the act. While she is back in proper form for the start of act II, she once again succumbs to pressure from overuse and breaks out into a wobble partway through, which lasts into act III and get progressively worse. If you are someone who can stand the condition of Maria Callas’s voice c.1960, then Polaski will not bother you; I am not, and she does. As for Schmiege, she too sings with intelligence and commitment, but her voice is at least a shade too light for the part, marred by a beat in the middle and upper registers, and prone to shrillness at the top. Overall I would take her over Polaski because her particular shortcomings bother me less, even though Polaski has the more suitable voice for the role; but I can see why someone else would have the reverse preference. However, neither one can compete with Ciesinski, and that is the clincher here.

Overall, then, the pioneering Warner recording still comes in a clear first, with its comparatively minor degrees of inferiority at several other points being completely outweighed by the much superior virtues of its vocal protagonist. The Capriccio set finishes a clear second over the Brilliant set, with numerous small advantages and the provision of a libretto more than compensating for the difference in price. Note that copies of the original Erato issue of the Jordan recording with complete libretto are showing up on the Internet at reasonable prices, so I suggest you shoot for one of those immediately before they disappear. But whichever set you choose, do add one to your collection and acquaint yourself with this unjustly neglected but supreme masterpiece.

FANFARE: James A. Altena
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Works on This Recording

Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Paul Dukas
Performer:  Marilyn Schmiege (Mezzo Soprano), Roderick Kennedy (Bass), Jocelyne Taillon (Mezzo Soprano),
Mitsuko Shirai (Mezzo Soprano), Jean-Luc Baudoin (Tenor)
Conductor:  Gary Bertini
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Cologne Radio Chorus,  Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1899-1906; France 

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