Dukas – Ariane et Barbe-Bleue

ONP Bastille, Thursday September 13 2007

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production, sets and costumes: Anna Viebrock. Barbe-Bleue: Willard White. Ariane: Deborah Polaski. La nourrice: Julia Juon. Sélysette: Diana Axentii. Ygraine: Iwona Sobotka. Mélisande: Hélène Guilmette. Bellangère: Jaël Azzaretti. Orchestra and chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

In my experience, booing at the opera usually provokes a compensating volley of applause and cheers. Last night, however, as the production team took their bow, it was unmitigated.

Anna Viebrock is familiar to Parisians as Christoph Marthaler’s set-designer; this was, however, my first encounter with her as director as well. She seems determined to do for the interior design of former communist East Germany what Zola did for the institutions of the Second Empire, presenting us with successive archetypes in the form of painstakingly reconstructed “Ostalgic” locations, as if transported lovingly, piece by numbered piece, complete with grubby wallpaper, direct from the Leipzig suburbs: a dilapidated housing project (Katia Kabanova), a run-down registry office (Le Nozze), a seedy dance hall (La Traviata)… and now, for Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, the administrative offices of an abandoned factory.

Across the front of the stage runs a shabby concrete terrace, with some steps up to a door on the right. The right-hand side of the set is a blank wall with one rusting ventilator. To the left are large windows opening into the offices, two offices wide, three deep, making six: one for each wife. As the offices are separated by former glass partitions that have since lost their glass, we can see through the windows to the rear, wallpapered wall. The offices are roofed and there are suspended neon lights. In other words, this space is enclosed, and the opening towards the audience takes up about one-fifth, only, of the total proscenium area: an unkind set for anyone singing from the rear. Viebrock’s idea here was to create an oppressive, labyrinthine space, with frequent movements through the doors and windows from office to office. The problem was trying to figure out why Barbe-Bleue had imprisoned his wives in a factory for them to transform the offices into bedrooms, with old stockings and underwear lying in the washbasins, and where the fabulous jewels Ariane finds there, as she opens and lights up each office, fit into the picture.

It was one of those wearisome productions where trying to decipher the director’s intentions distracted you from the music. There seemed to be a reference to old detective thrillers: Ariane and the nurse (a sort of female Dr Watson) wore sensible hats and reversible mackintoshes, and had a torch, a camera, a magnifying glass and a thermos flask, and sometimes the action was projected live in black and white on the blank wall to the right, occasionally with snippets from the text, like a silent film. At other times, however, the projections looked more like security videos, shot from odd, stark angles, including shots from the ceiling. The detective theme nearly worked, the trouble being that, in this odd piece, Ariane doesn’t actually solve anything – the five other wives, though she gets them out of their dressing gowns and into 50s frocks, hats and make-up, in the end refuse to be liberated and return to their offices. But in addition, the action was constantly at odds with the libretto, and in the first half it was depressingly static; only in Act 3 did things liven up as the peasants lobbed projectiles through the rear wall, seriously damaging the precious East German wallpaper (this did not, however, distract Ariane from her architectural drawings).

Hence, I guess, the booing. There was some determined booing also for Deborah Polaski, though in this case others cheered and clapped to drown it out. The role is a killer and she made a brave attempt, but the result was like being bludgeoned all evening with a blunt instrument. Except in the lower ranges and when singing quietly (which was not often, over the din from the pit), her voice is now harsh and unpleasant, and the top notes are decidedly flat. Julia Juon was a strident nurse. The rest of the cast had too little to do to judge reliably of their efforts: this is Ariane’s opera.

The score is sumptuous and it’s no surprise to learn that Schönberg, Berg and Webern congratulated Dukas after Zemlinsky conducted it in Vienna. I’d have preferred a lusher, less brutal performance from Cambreling and the orchestra. But it was nevertheless Dukas’s evening more than anything else. I wonder, in any case, if this opera needs staging. Even the learned article about it in Opéra Magazine suggested the audience should ignore Maeterlinck’s text (easy enough to do when the diction is so hot-potato and the orchestra so loud) and just listen. The author didn’t suggest they should also close their eyes, but he probably hadn’t seen Viebrock’s production yet…

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