DUKAS: Ariane and Bluebeard (complete opera) – Lori Philips (Ariane)/ Patricia Bardon (La Nourrice)/ Peter Rose (Bluebeard)/ Laura Vlasak Nolen (Selysette)/ Ana James (Ygraine)/ Daphne Touchais (Melisande)/ Sarah-Jane Davies (Bellangere) – Telarc 80680 (2 CDs), 114:32 ****(*):

This is now the only recording of Dukas’s seminal masterpiece, Ariane and Bluebeard. His only opera was done to a specifically-written libretto by Maeterlinck, who originally intended it for Grieg, who turned it down. It has some references to the Bartok opera, but is quite different musically, full of lush orchestration and sumptuous Wagnerian harmonies (especially the third and last act).

The Bluebeard story dates to the late seventeenth century and its roots are in dispute, some seeing it based on the life of the famous one-time compatriot of Joan of Arc, Gilles de Rais, who is the modern forerunner of the serial killer, being especially fond of raping, torturing, and killing boys. Others see a compendium of various influences that fused together through various oral traditions. Whatever, the source, this once-popular fairy tale has fallen into disregard in our own sensitive and politically correct times, though it must be admitted that the story is rather gruesome.

Dukas tones it down a bit. In the fairy tale, Ariane is told by Bluebeard (whose beard was really blue according to the story, symbolic of otherworldliness, demonic influence, or perhaps something innately different from the human realm) to have some friends over while he goes out of town on business. He gives her keys to a number of locked doors wherein his various treasures reside, and encourages her to use the keys and bring out the goodies for the enjoyment of her guests. However, one key to a small room must not be used at any cost. One must ask why he gave her the key at all if he did not want it opened, but obviously we have parallels here to the biblical Garden of Eden story and to the fact that he wanted justification for doing her harm if she opened the door. In the story she does indeed open the door and discovers that the room is covered on the floor with a coating of dried blood, and therein lay the bodies of the other wives. Dukas has them found alive, save one, whose demise is not explained.

She then frees them, and waits for Bluebeard’s return. Dukas has the suspicious townsfolk, already long looking for a reason to do in the man of colored beard, ready for him when he returns, and they capture and beat him. In the original story, Bluebeard returns and is within a hair’s breath of slicing off the head of Ariane when her two brothers show up and kill the noble tyrant. Dukas opts for Ariane, in an act of supreme compassion, to bind up his wounds and then leave the castle with the other wives in an act of supreme charity. In the story she takes over the castle and runs it herself.

As you can see, there is not a lot of action to be seen here, and that may be the reason why this almost two-hour production never caught on. But make no mistake, this is music of genius that serves the mainly female voices very well, and Dukas, as perfectionist as Brahms (and who probably threw away or destroyed more of his music than the German did) gives every bar considered attention and some very singable lines. This is not an opera you spend time wondering if you are going to like it—it is immediately attractive, and if you are a Dukas fan wondering if there is anything else out there, well, you have just hit a gold mine. Leon Botstein steers the ship very well with a good French feel to the performance, and the BBC Symphony plays like pros. The singing, especially that of Lori Philips as Ariane, is first-rate.

— Steven Ritter