245. Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Dukas)

  • Conte lyrique in 3 acts
  • Composer: Paul Dukas
  • Libretto: Maurice Maeterlinck
  • First performed: Opéra-Comique, Paris, 10th May 1907, conducted by François Ruhlmann

ARIANEMezzoGeorgette Leblanc-Materlinck
LA NOURRICE (nurse)MezzoCécile Thévenet
BARBE-BLEUEBassFélix Vieuille
SÉLYSETTE, Barbe-bleue’s wifeMezzoSuzanne Brohly
YGRAINE, Barbe-bleue’s wifeSopranoMarthe Bakkers
MÉLISANDE, Barbe-bleue’s wifeSopranoHélène Demellier
BELLANGÈRE, Barbe-bleue’s wifeSopranoBerg
ALLADINE, Barbe-bleue’s wifeMimeRégina Badet
Three PeasantsBass Tenor BassLouis Azéma Lucazeau Tarquini
Peasants, CrowdChorus 

SETTING: Barbe-bleue’s castle

Rating: 2 out of 5.

There’s plenty of Ariane and not much of Bluebeard. Ariane is on stage for almost two hours, while Bluebeard sings for less than three minutes in Act I, doesn’t appear in Act II, and is silent in Act III. In fact, the opera is almost a tone poem for mezzo and orchestra. But then Ariane is a strange sort of opera.

It was also Dukas’s only opera. His works to this point included L’Apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), a symphony, three overtures, piano sonatas, songs, and choruses. He had also finished the orchestration of Ernest Guiraud’s Frédégonde, and edited Rameau’s scores.

Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (1902), it is based on a play by the Belgian Symbolist, Maurice Maeterlinck (whose mistress created the rôle of Ariane). Edvard Grieg originally considered setting Maeterlinck’s play; when he withdrew, Dukas was free to compose the score, which he completed in 1906.

Act II set design. Source: Gallica / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Ariane, a feminist, is Bluebeard’s sixth and latest wife. Unlike her Classical namesake, she is not abandoned by her husband; rather, she leaves him. From the outset, she refuses to submit to masculine domination. « D’abord il faut désobéir: c’est le premier devoir quand l’ordre est menaçant et ne s’explique pas, » she proclaims in her first speech. She descends into a vault to free the other wives (six frightened women kept in darkness, all heroines of Maeterlinck’s previous plays, among them Mélisande), and leads them into the light of day. The wives mill around the stage for two acts, then decide they will stay where they are, with Bluebeard. Ariane leaves, presumably to continue her suffragette mission.

This is one of the most dramatically pointless libretti ever perpetrated: nothing changes, and it takes a devil of a time not to do so. Maeterlinck’s script is deadly dull, and by the third act, one is more than ready for it to end. Arthur Pougin (Le Ménestrel) complained: “There is neither movement, nor a plot, nor emotion in the poem of Ariane et Barbe-bleue, and that is why the public cannot take any interest in it, why this poem left them cold.” (Bartók was wise to limit his treatment of the Bluebeard story to only an hour.)

Maeterlinck himself seems not to have thought much of his text; he dismissed the script as “a little stage play, a short poem … intended to provide musicians with a theme suitable for lyrical developments. It did not pretend to anything more, and one would be mistaken about my intention if one wanted to find in it great moral or philosophical meaning.”

The opera’s saving grace is its orchestration. It is, Eduard Combe (Chefs-d’œuvre du répertoire, 1914) wrote, “above all, a vast symphony, a sonic orgy, where everything is lost in the gleam of timbres, whose sumptuousness is second to none in the annals of opera. The play accompanies the music, a bit like a tableau vivant.”

After an enigmatic prelude in A major, the highlight of the opera comes in Act I, when Ariane opens the doors of Bluebeard’s treasure chambers; each room is depicted in a different musical key. Here are amethysts (B major), sapphires (A flat), pearls (C major), emeralds (D major), rubies (B flat), and diamonds (F sharp). It is glittering, colourful, almost Russian music, and Ariane and her Nurse are understandably dazzled. The same act contains a striking women’s chorus, the “filles d’Orlamonde”, which has a Gothic air. A Debussyan ocean roars and surges in Act II, before Ariane leads the wives out of bondage into a springtime noon. But despite its lushness, the orchestration is often lugubrious. For all Ariane’s appeals to light, it is a dark-hued work. « Le bonheur que je veux ne peut vivre dans l’ombre. »

Pougin detested the music – or, rather, declared he could find no music (except for the women’s chorus in Act I). The score was “lifeless and colourless, null and absolutely empty”. It showed counterpoint and skill in orchestration – but there was not a single idea, not even the shadow of an idea, that made logical or musical sense. “Where can one find interest, charm, or grace in these three interminable acts, from which nothing emerges, which nothing illuminates, where the musical substance is completely absent?”

But Ariane remained in the repertoire of the Opéra-Comique until 1927 (79 performances), before moving to the Opéra in 1935 (48 performances to 1952). It was staged in Vienna (1908), Brussels (1909), Madrid, New York and Milan (1911). Its admirers included Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, Toscanini (who conducted it in New York and Buenos Aires), and Sir Thomas Beecham (who called it “one of the finest lyrical dramas of our time”).

Debussy thought it a masterpiece, but not ‘French’. More recently, Vincent Giroud states that it “unquestionably numbers among the outstanding works of its decade”. Nevertheless, its appeal, I suspect, is limited to musicologists, not to the general public.

Astonishingly, too, French women didn’t get the vote until 1945 – some 40 years after Australia. Perhaps Ariane wasn’t compelling enough.

Listen to

Katherine Ciesinski (Ariane), Mariana Paunova (la Nourrice), and Gabriel Bacquier (Barbe-bleue), with the Chœurs de Radio France and Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, conducted by Armin Jordan, Paris, 1983. Erato, 1983.

Works consulted

  • Arthur Pougin, Le Ménestrel, 18 May 1907
  • Eduard Combe, Chefs-d’œuvre du répertoire, 1914, at Association l’Art Lyrique Français
  • Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris : Fayard, 2003
  • Vincent Giroud, French Opera: A Short History, Yale University Press, 2010
  • Phil’s Opera World

9 thoughts on “245. Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Dukas)

  1. The most entertaining version of this tale is Offenbach’s, which I saw years ago, at The Greek I think, performed by Long Beach Opera. Gretry’s I have only heard, a recent recording (Norwegian?), and it is quite enjoyable as well. The virtue of Barton’s opera is its brilliant orchestration (the groaning of the castle!) and its brevity. The music I find ugly and tuneless, though I have not heard it in awhile. My opinion may change with a revisit. The Dukes IS boring — though I know some people who claim it is their favorite Bluebeard. I suspect they are not familiar with my personal favorites.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I think your survey of the Gretry may have been a factor in me wanting to explore that opera. It’s like an exceedingly goth Rocky and Bullwinkle episode, or at least it seems to have that sensibility. Grim, but not meant to be taken too seriously. I rather love it. The Offenbach is, as usual, a delight — though by this time his librettists’ formula for taking serious mythical, historical or literary subjects and turning them into comedies was starting to become a little predictable. On it’s own terms, it’s delicious.

        Bru Zane has released a complete recording (sans much dialogue) of Le Voyage dans la Lune. Also, I know you have discussed La Vestale before, but the new Bru Zane recording is terrific (in spite of the period instruments, which I don’t care for in repertoire this late). Christophe Rousset has a real flair for conducting opera, as we know from Les Danaïdes.


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