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Bluebeard: the Legend, the Spoof, the Two Operas


ART TIMES November 2007

Many years ago, I ran a miniseries about the Faust legend on the musical stage. The recent recording on the Telarc label of Paul Dukas’ “Ariane et Barbe-bleue” has spurred my interest to compare it with other versions and to see what comes out the other end.

The original legend, possibly based on an actual nobleman who lived in the 6th-century, might have been the basis for the version by Charles Perrault that was printed in 1697. In this version, Bluebeard’s beard was really blue and something of a put-off to prospective brides. (No one knew what had happened to his first three wives.) He marries the youngest daughter of a family, goes on a trip, and leaves her with the keys to all the rooms in his chateau, but forbids her to enter only one room.

Like Pandora, she cannot control her curiosity. Spurred on by one of her sisters, she opens the forbidden door and finds the bloody bodies of the three previous wives. Back home, Bluebeard sees blood on the key and wants to behead both sisters. However, their two brothers save them by killing the killer, and the widow uses all his wealth to help out her family. Happy Ending.

In 1789, Andre-Ernest-Modeste Gretry wrote an operetta on the subject called “Raoul Barbe-bleue,” but I have not been able to find any synopsis of the plot. (Any help from my Readers would be appreciated.)

Jacques Offenbach did a typical spoof of the story in his “Barbe-bleue” (1866) in which Bluebeard hands over each wife to his court chemist for poisoning. The chemist, however, finds this an easy way to build up a personal harem of what adds up to six charming rejects. When the master finds out what has been going on, he decides to pair the six with six rejected lovers of a female monarch, thus providing a Happy Ending.

Skip now to the early 20th-century. A Hungarian composer named Bela Balazs wrote a libretto called “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle” (or simply “Bluebeard’s Castle” as it is more often known), and Bela Bartok turned it into a moody musical masterpiece. The work runs under one hour and calls for only two singers: Bluebeard and his new wife Judith. (Think Old Testament for the obvious symbolism of the name.)

He is showing her his dark castle, door by door. If we consider the setting to be inside of his mind, the meaning of the rooms’ contents becomes a bit clearer. The first houses a torture chamber (his infliction of mental cruelty on himself and others). The second, an armory (his valor). The third his wealth (his power). The fourth, a flower garden soaked in blood (beauty from suffering?). The fifth, his domains that include the entire universe (the stretch of man’s imagination?). The sixth, a lake of tears (regrets from the past).

The seventh and forbidden door reveals the other six wives—still alive! He explains why he loved each of them. And having probed further than she should have into her husband’s mind, Judith joins them as they silently file back into the room. Thus ends the brooding psychological tale of a bride and her husband. Read into it what moral you will.

There are several CD recordings of the Bartok work but only one of the Dukas versions in the current catalogue. It is conducted by Leon Botstein and stars Lori Phillips as Ariane and Peter Rose as Barbe-bleue. While not tuneful, it is certainly melodic and much more varied dramatically and musically than is the Bartok version.

Here it is Ariane’s Nurse who goads her into opening several doors, out of which pour countless gems. In true Universal-horror-film style, the peasants have been threatening to kill Bluebeard, whose life is saved by his new bride at the end of Act I. Act II finds her among the other wives, who somewhat reluctantly agree to be liberated by Ariane. In Act III, she tries to bring back their self-esteem. When the maimed and bloody Bluebeard is brought in by the peasants, Ariane sends them away and cares for his wounds. But when the time comes for all the wives to leave with her, they decide to stay behind and care for their former-husband. Ariane leaves alone, her last words being “Adieu…be happy.”

The price of women’s lib is loneliness? The other wives are fools? Ariane is a fool? Actually, the two serious operatic treatments complement each other in some abstract ways, and hearing both is a dramatic and musical experience I can highly recommend.

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