“Ariane & Bluebeard”: A Harmonic & Opulent Opera—at West Edge
Paul Dukas’ Opera, Directed by Alison Pogorelc, Asserts Women’s Wisdom
by Jennifer Ann Charron
Beginning with Paul Dukas’ lush opera, director Alison Pogorelc delivers a gorgeous and deeply clever production—imparting her own interpretation, as well as allowing us room to choose our own. Pogorelc’s unique talent challenges us to engage—desperately needed in today’s operas.
For the second show in their Festival, West Edge Opera offers Ariane & Bluebeard, an outstanding French Opera with music by Paul Dukas and adapted libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck. Based on the French fairy-tale “La Barbe Bleue” (“Bluebeard”), the story runs from gruesome to tame in multiple interpretations. Like a Grimm’s fairy-tale, Bluebeard’s story can fall anywhere on the spectrum from horrifying to uplifting.
Once seen as a dark opera of female abuse, now the opera is re-imagined as a feminist tale. Ariane takes agency over her own life while saving the hidden wives, too.
Bluebeard takes a wife and gives her seven keys: six silver and one gold. He tells his new wife Ariane that she may use the silver keys to open six doors and enjoy all the riches inside; but she must never open the gold door. Unfortunately, his first five wives could not resist the gold key and haven’t been seen since.
Enter Ariane (wildly talented Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier), Bluebeard’s sixth wife, who is determined to uncover his secrets. Ariane, a powerful woman of agency, and her nurse (deeply soulful contralto Sara Couden) go straight to the doors to see what’s up. When six doors open to piles of jewels, from pearls to rubies, Couden displays her formidable acting chops in a fabulous scene where she basks in the jewels.
Interested only in what’s behind the door with the gold key, Ariane succumbs to her curiosity, and in a moment of terror discovers the five previous Mrs. Bluebeards imprisoned in a dungeon. Each woman is cocooned in darkness. They awaken to see the light of day and their newfound freedom. The moment is glorious—their rich soprano voices ring with complete joy.
As Bluebeard, powerful Philip Skinner is frequently onstage, but only sings briefly. In Act Two he sings, “Vous aussi,” as he realizes that Ariane has fallen prey to curiosity. Skinner’s booming bass baritone terrifies us while we wonder what he will do next. His Bluebeard is both maniacal and vulnerable at the same time—he is brilliant.
Paul Dukas’ score is lusciously intricate and always moving—his music fitting perfectly to the libretto’s rhythms and intonations. Music Director and Conductor Jonathan Khuner demonstrates masterful control of the tight orchestra. Khuner recalls the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, where music and action are perfectly in sync.
As the tale advances, Bluebeard is held accountable for his actions, while Ariane becomes a feminist hero. But oddly the tables don’t completely turn. While Bluebeard has been stripped, beaten, and grossly humbled, Ariane rises triumphant. She is not simply a feminist: she is a liberator.
When Ariane and the nurse prepare to leave the castle, the wives decide to stay with Bluebeard. Is it Stockholm Syndrome or has Bluebeard been reduced to illicit sympathy? Has Ariane’s intervention liberated Bluebeard from evil?
Here is where we take over. We get to decide if Ariane is a feminist activist or enlightenment personified. You choose.
Ariane & Bluebeard (Ariane et Barbe-bleue) —composed by Paul Dukas, libretto by Maurice Maeterlinck, directed by Alison Pogorelc, conducted by Jonathan Khuner, at West Edge Opera, Oakland. Info: WestEdgeOpera.org – to Saturday, August 6, 2022.
Cast: Renée Rapier, Sara Couden, Philip Skinner, Silvie Jensen, Alexa Anderson, Candace Johnson, Taylor See, Sharon Shao, Chung-Wai Soong, Douglas Mandell, and Wilford Kelly.
Banner photo: Renée Rapier (Ariane) & Sarah Couden (Nurse). All Photos: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera