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Opera in three acts. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes.
This was Paul Dukas’ only opera. You may remember him for “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in Fantasia. This work is based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck, the writer of Pelleas et Melisande, and it falls into that class of symbolic 20th century operas along with the likes of Wozzeck and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle. Dukas even quotes Debussy’s work in the second act as one of the wives is named Melisande, in fact all five of the other wives are named after characters in Maeterlinck plays. Don’t expect to fall in love with this opera, you might if it is to your taste, but don’t expect to.
PLOT: Bluebeard’s Castle, time unspecified but he is on wife number six (6). Ariane, the new wife, is determined to prove that the other wives are still alive, so she opens six doors and then a seventh and finds what she is looking for after all.
LOOK OUT FOR:
ACT 1: A hall in Barbe-Bleue’s castle. (33 minutes)
0: After some brief orchestral spookiness to a somewhat haunting melody that will return over and over again * we enter the opera proper with shouts from the peasants calling for the death of Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard). They give chase for some five minutes until finally Ariane and her nurse arrive with seven keys to unlock his many, many doors. The Nurse goes on about how BB has killed five of his wives and that is why everyone wants to kill him, but Ariane is convinced that all of the wives are still alive.
13: The Nurse takes three chances to open door one: it’s all jewelry, the second is specifically sapphires, the orchestra is springy *.
15: For the fourth door: emeralds, there is another orchestral highlight *.
19: On the sixth door, there is an explosion of sound ** and Ariane exclaims that she has found diamonds, the only one of the doors that has actually made any impression on her.
25: Ariane finds the seventh door behind all the diamonds. The spooky theme returns and the five other wives begin their song in the distance far below **. The two women try to close the door but Bluebeard arrives and is about to torture Ariane. Some villagers burst in and she tells them to get lost.
ACT 2: Beyond the Seventh Door: a subterranean cave. (38 minutes)
0: There is orchestral nothingness for about four minutes * before Ariane and the Nurse show up and see the women. Ariane asks who they are, it’s the other wives, they respond. She comments on them.
10: Selysette, wife one, finally reveals her name to Ariane and fills her in on almost everything including Melisande who is introduced with a quote from Pelleas *.
18: Alladine (a silent foreign wife played by a mime) provides the orchestra with a moment for something rather touching as Ariane embraces her *. Ariane goes into a spiel about nature and how it is spring now and the wives don’t know this because they are stuck in the basement.
23: The wives freak out as Ariane tries to find a new light source *.
26: Ariane breaks the bars and opens everything to the light **. The orchestra demonstrates joy here and at the end crescendos.
29: The wives react for some time about seeing the day again, the sea, a church bell, the flowers, fields, etc. **. It is midday.
36: The wives break in to a happy version of their theme song **.
ACT 3: The same, in theory at least, as act one. (47 minutes)
0: Dukas is trying to imitate the score of Parsifal in an fine but really long prelude *. It gets springy towards the end as the wives and Ariane and the Nurse pop in finally, the former giving her speech as liberatrix of the other women. The girls just go on and on for a long while. The one highlight might be the mild accompaniment when Ariane comments on Alladine’s wedding dress. Ariane gives the jewels from the five doors to the wives. The Nurse comes on to warn her mistress that the Bodyguard (who has a thing for her) is hiding in the shadows.
20: At last there is something resembling action as the peasants storm the castle again and attack the guard and Bluebeard, the wives freak out *. The peasants eventually take Bluebeard captives, Ariane is totally silent, but the other wives are terrifies and so is the Nurse.
36: In the last twenty minutes, three villagers drag in Bluebeard and they leave him to be tortured by Ariane. Then there is soft but serious music as Ariane interrogates Bluebeard. The women look over his wounds (numerous but non-fatal). There is some interesting orchestral music as Ariane cuts him free *. The five wives fall before him, they are his slaves, but Ariane is stedfast and decides to leave immediately with the Nurse. The wives all want to know when she is coming back, never says she. They all refuse to go. She says a long good-bye to them and goes.
If you like Gothic Horror Opera, you will love this. The highlights are when Ariane finds the diamonds, when the wives see the sun again, and that haunting theme from the very beginning of the opera. It is a great opera in the same sense that Wozzeck is a great opera but it is so heavy on symbolism that I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone other than someone who might be interested in that, which is more people than one would think. There is something to be said for the opera’s feminism. Ariane is a very strong character, and the message of the opera in the time it was written: more than a century ago in an era when women lacked franchise, does mark this as an important work, giving poignancy to the liberation of the wives in act two as well as their decision to reject freedom in the final scene while Ariane leaves successful if perplexed. Musically I found this to be rather boring and am inclined to give it a C+ but I am sure that many would give it an A.
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