Leon Botstein, music director of both the American Symphony Orchestra and the Jerusalem Symphony, recently recorded Paul Dukas’ single opera, Ariane et Barbe-bleue. It will be the only recording of this hauntingly beautiful but rarely performed work in the current catalogue.
Botstein’s extraordinary track record as an advocate for unjustly neglected repertoire has been widely reported. As The New Yorker stated early this year, “Leon Botstein goes where other conductors fear to tread.” Botstein’s New York City Opera debut last year, conducting the first professional staging of Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-bleue in the U.S., was critically acclaimed here and abroad, with Andrew Clark writing in London’s Financial Times: “Nearly a century after its premiere it’s time we wised up to the modernity of Paul Dukas’ only opera [Ariane et Barbe-bleue]. … The three-act score, with its taut, hauntingly suggestive libretto by Maeterlinck, has long been recognised by aficionados as a masterpiece … Leon Botstein paces the work perfectly, with a fine ear for its spacious chiaroscuro.”
The new recording of Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, with the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra, stars American soprano Lori Phillips as Ariane, with Bluebeard sung by English bass Peter Rose, who is Osmin on the Telarc CD of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio. Dublin-born Patricia Bardon is the Nurse, and Welsh soprano Sarah-Jane Davies is Bellangére. In the CD program notes, Botstein gives background and context for the work: “When one hears the beauties of this score, the powerful representation of its characters’ tangled lives, and the masterful orchestration, the comparison should not be with other works that have fallen out of the repertory but with those that remain. Dukas was a composer whose command of the craft of musical composition was consummate and whose achievement, unexpected modesty and artistic self-scrutiny merit not only our admiration, but possibly even a degree of awe.”
In addition to composition, Paul Dukas (1865-1935) also wrote music criticism, edited, and taught at the Paris Conservatoire (Messiaen was his most successful student). His fame today rests almost exclusively on his enduringly popular 1897 orchestral work, L’apprenti sorcier (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). A painstaking artist, Dukas completed very few works, and Ariane et Barbe-bleue, which took seven years to write and was premiered in Paris in 1907, is one of only two of his works for the theater (the other is his ballet, La Perí).
Like Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Dukas’ opera features a mysterious yet evocative libretto by the Belgian symbolist writer Maurice Maeterlinck. With limited action, the opera centers on the psychological relationship between the characters, particularly between Blubeard and his new wife, who is determined to uncover and understand his past. Accordingly, the heroine’s role requires great stamina, as Ariane remains on stage singing for almost the entire opera. As Bluebeard’s past wives emerge, the opera explores issues such as individual freedom, women’s rights and the power of memory. John Ashbery writes in Telarc’s album notes: “Luscious but pure as the cascade of diamonds that all but drowns the heroine, Dukas’ score brings his strange parable magnificently into focus, weaving a seamless fabric of music, pantomime and poetry.”