Thursday 25 June 2015

Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue (Strasbourg, 2015 - Webcast)

Paul Dukas - Ariane et Barbe-bleue

L’Opéra National du Rhin, Strasbourg - 2015

Daniele Callegari, Olivier Py, Lori Phillips, Marc Barrard, Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo, Aline Martin, Rocío Pérez, Gaëlle Ali, Lamia Beuque, Jaroslaw Kitala, Peter Kirk

Culturebox - 6 May 2015

There's no doubt that fairy tales have a certain power to unsettle and create a sense of unease, and it's usually in respect of a moral or a cautionary message. Clinically exploring the psychological underpinnings of those works in some modern productions, particularly the legend of Bluebeard in the operas by Dukas and Bartok, can however tend to take away somewhat from the dark mystery of the myth behind them. Olivier Py's production of Ariane et Barbe-bleue for L’Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg exposes some of the work's subtext without losing its edge of dark, mysterious suggestion, but there would appear to be other elements that Py wants to take from this distinctive working of the Charles Perrault fairy tale.

In as far as most modern revisions of Ariane et Barbe-bleue go, and indeed of Bartok's Duke Bluebeard's Castle, the emphasis is often on the psychoanalytical aspect of female psychology and sexuality. Ariane's flirtation with the notorious Bluebeard is often less that of an innocent being delivered into the hands of a notorious suspected murderer of his previous wives, less a cautionary tale on the nature of searching for forbidden knowledge, and more as the freedom of a woman to probe, question and explore her own sexuality rather than submitting to a man's needs. In the age of '50 Shades of Grey', this question can be taken even further into sexual exploration and the dangers that lie within such experimentation.

It's hard therefore to go back and simply see the Bluebeard legend as nothing more than a fairy tale, but there ought to be another way to explore the themes of the work, and Maeterlinck's libretto, departing considerably from Perrault's version, offers opportunities to do that. The search for forbidden knowledge, as related in Ariane's determination to unlock the door to the Seventh Room despite the express instructions of her new husband, is only the starting point as far as Dukas's opera goes. In fact, Ariane is scarcely bothered to even look at the treasures contained in the other rooms, despite the Nurse being satisfied with the contents of these alone. Py likewise is hardly interested in this aspect in his production, the treasure that they contain being invisible as far as the audience are concerned.

All the audience can see are two women in a dark underground dungeon, walking though a single door into an equally dark, squalid bare room, with a little bit of falling glitter briefly illuminating the dual-level set. While the nurse has no capacity to imagine anything more precious than glittering stones, Ariane is far from impressed. The treasures she seeks are not precious jewels or even material objects, but something deeper - "Ce que j'aime est plus beau que les plus belles pierres", she tells the nurse at one stage, and shortly after this as they approach the 7th door - perhaps more significantly as far as the director's interpretation goes here - "Le bonheur que je veux ne peut vivre dans l'ombre". ("The happiness I am looking for cannot live in the shadows").

There is unquestionably more than a suggestion of sexual undercurrent to the meaning of these words, and that is certainly not underplayed in Py's direction. There is considerable full nudity on the stage, with each of Bluebeard's previous wives represented by naked dancers in the extended musical interlude sections of the work, as well as at other points throughout. Not murdered by Bluebeard in this version of the fairy tale, the women are nonetheless captives, enslaved, abused, raped, serving the master (Bluebeard also represented by a naked male dancer wearing a devil mask with horns) and his accomplices. All this takes place in eerie red light, in the darkness of the upper room, and in the woods surrounding Bluebeard's castle.

What is significant about the Maeterlick and Dukas version of the story, apart from the fact that the wives are not dead here (and that the wives are all named after heroines in other Maeterlinck plays, including a Mélisande), is that Ariane attempts to help them escape from the dungeon and allow them to see the light. When the nervous villagers see the women however, they finally rally to storm the castle and beat Bluebeard almost to death. Feeling sympathy for their captor, or perhaps just no longer capable of conceiving of any other life outside of that which they have experienced at the hands of their abuser, the women however each refuse to follow Ariane now that she has opened the path to their freedom.

For Py, an actor and theatre director who is well known for his political stance as well as his Catholicism, there are familiar themes in his treatment of this turn of events in Ariane et Barbe-bleue. According to the director himself - and without neglecting the sexual content of the work - the political questions that this gives rise to is his primary concern in the direction. When people are oppressed, they don't know how to respond to someone who wants to deliver them from their captivity - "Personne ne veut être délivré. Il vaut mieux se libérer soi-même". The need to throw off the chains needs to come from within. The dark rituals showing women liberating themselves from a Devil and looking toward the light however has more of a suggestion of Py's Christian outlook than any political message. The messages might be mixed - Py is happy to let much remain in the shadows - but the director's treatment is nonetheless typically strong, distinctive and supportive of the material.

Lori Phillips took on the role of Ariane for this production, replacing Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, who I've heard singing it before. It's a challenging role, demanding Wagnerian stamina and force at a very high pitch, and if the voice tires of such sustained singing it can waver and lose its dramatic force. For Phillips that comes around the scene of leading the captive women towards the light, but she never loses control and rallies through in the second part of the work. Elsewhere, the singing among the nearly entirely female cast is good, the variety of voices giving individual character to Bluebeard's wives. Daniele Callegari weaves a steady line between Wagner and Debussy in his conducting of the orchestra of the Opéra National du Rhin.

Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National du Rhin