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Dukas’ only finished opera belongs to the category of magnificently flawed masterpieces. Its lavishly orchestrated score brilliantly merges Wagner and Debussy while anticipating Berg and Messiaen but it comes with a wordy libretto, little action, a diminutive role for Bluebeard and almost impossible demands on Ariadne. The opera needs all the help it can get to emerge from unjustified semi-obscurity but this new production looks set to send it straight back to its cupboard.

Nobody doubts Gerard Mortier is an ardent defender of the French repertoire but his choice of Bastille’s vast space for a text-heavy work is mystifying. Sylvain Cambreling’s muscular conducting does not help. He underlines the score’s modern strands with his customary analytical probing, especially in a quite remarkable prelude to the second act, but frequently drowns out the
singers. Reviving Ariane in Paris’s other house, Garnier, would have been a more satisfactory solution for an equal competition between stage and pit.

Anna Viebrock (staging, sets and costumes) once again rolls out her trademark clinical obsession with East German architecture and fittings. The castle is a group of four, partitioned offices in a disused factory. The back wall sports the usual grim wallpaper, and a CCTV camera homes in on discarded nylons and knickers dumped in a sink. This is the prison of the other five wives, marooned there like underperforming secretaries, but unfortunately it also creates a barrier between us and the action.

The lofty view of Maeterlinck’s original play, where Ariadne fails to convince the other wives to embrace freedom and abandon Bluebeard, is that we can only liberate ourselves not others. But Ariadne’s crusading, suffragette spirit can also be presented as the actions of an interfering busybody dictating her doctrine. Maeterlinck added the cynical subtitle “la délivrance inutile” (“the pointless liberation”) and is reported to have referred to the thankless exertions of his do-gooder singer wife Georgette Leblanc, the first Ariadne.

This is the angle Viebrock exploits by presenting Ariadne and the nurse as two camera-toting tourists in 1930s cloche hats, macs and sturdy sensible shoes; they bear a striking resemblance to photos of Leblanc, in her later Sapphic period, with companion Margaret Anderson.

Even when the castle/factory is under attack from the local peasants, Ariadne sticks at her desk, resolutely planning everybody’s blissful future. It is evidence of Viebrock’s theatrical insight but her neon-lit universe is a dismal, monotonous accompaniment to a score bristling with colour and crying out for Klimt gowns and steamy decadence. And her approach suggests uncomfortable parallels with Ariadne’s own failed lobbying: Viebrock, like Mortier, is on a mission to convert Parisians to Regietheater aesthetics. Bluebeard’s wives calmly resist Ariadne’s invitation to flee. The Bastille audience rewards Viebrock’s preaching with thunderous booing.

Deborah Polaski’s headmistressy Ariadne has dogged stamina but sacrifices diction to a disfiguring, cavernous vibrato. The birdbrain wives are competently sung but hiring Sir Willard White to sing Bluebeard’s 34 notes is financial extravagance. The failure of this staging to do Dukas justice is a bitter disappointment but one day Paris will get the right team to champion Ariane on its own terms and that will be a real liberation.
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