Bluebeard, according to old folk legend, had an unusual fetish. He would marry young women and bring them back to his castle, where the locked rooms were full of rubies, sapphires and diamonds. The women were never seen again.
But do we really know that they were murdered, as history tells us? Isn’t it possible that something else happened?
It’s the haunting and provocative premise of Paul Dukas’ 1907 opera “Ariane et Barbe-Bleu” (“Ariane et Barbe-Bleu”), a little-known masterpiece that achieved a rare staging. on Sunday, July 24, as part of the opening weekend of West Edge Opera’s 2022 season. The piece sheds a fascinating – maybe feminist, maybe not quite – light on material that many of us have long been content to take at face value.
It does so, moreover, in a score of ravishing beauty and endless invention, a breathless fusion of Wagner and Debussy that transforms this strangely macabre fairy tale into something powerful and strange. And Sunday’s performance at the Scottish Rite Center in Oakland, dexterously staged by director Alison Pogorelc and conducted with rugged intensity by the company’s musical director, Jonathan Khuner, made the best argument imaginable for the job.
Most opera lovers will probably associate this material with Bartók’s 1918 one-act “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which tells the story in a relatively simple way. But Dukas, working from a symbolist piece from the shadow of Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (best known as the creator of “Pelléas et Mélisande”), is looking for something more psychologically probing.
In this version, the last Mrs. Bluebeard was named Ariadne, because like the Cretan princess in Greek mythology, her task is to lead people out of a labyrinth. Unlike Judith, her Bartókian counterpart, Ariadne has no interest in jewelry or wealth, as they are not forbidden to her. All he cares about is opening the door with the thickest padlock and the heaviest “Do Not Enter” sign.
What she finds there are her predecessors, five wives who also failed Bluebeard’s obedience test – albeit through weakness rather than Ariadne’s defiant strength of character – and remain locked in the keep accordingly. The entire second act of the opera is devoted to a glorious Wagnerian love scene distributed among all the women, a lively celebration of brotherly devotion in sumptuous harmonic and orchestral colors.
In the end, however, Ariane’s mission to free turns out to be more complicated than she – or the audience – anticipated. I can’t say more, partly because the plot here is surprising and partly because the literal meaning and implications of the ending are hard to make out.
What was undeniable, however, was the expressive power of Sunday’s performance (the first of three). Mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier gave a heroic performance in the title role, and as her nurse, contralto Sara Couden – hitherto known to Bay Area audiences only in the Baroque repertoire – proved to be a equally majestic interpreter of French Impressionism. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner sang infrequently but tellingly as Bluebeard, and the Five Wives were ably performed by Silvie Jensen, Alexa Anderson, Candace Johnson, Taylor See and Sharon Shao.
On Saturday, July 23, the season opened with a less engaging tale of Handel’s “Julius Caesar.” There were strong individual contributions among the cast – especially from mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, a longtime local treasure who outdid herself with a flamboyant and tender performance as young Roman Sesto – and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and the soprano Shawnette Sulker, under the respective roles of Caesar and Cleopatra, have held up well.
But the performance crumbled and stalled. Director Mark Streshinsky’s output repeatedly wavered between outrageous camp and expressive candor, failing to render either vein persuasive. Conductor Christine Brandes struggled to bring the required energy or a sharp rhythmic profile to proceedings.
The company’s decision to make the Scottish Rite Center the latest in its long line of performance houses has also been disappointing, at least so far. It’s an impressive space, of course, with a large, flexible stage and domed ceiling that gave both performances an air of grandeur.
Unfortunately, the room also has a ventilation system which, in a lyrical context, can only be described as deafening. He hissed, shook and moaned throughout both performances, providing unwanted counterpoint to many vocal numbers and loudly intruding into what would otherwise have affected the silences.
Still, not even the hostile ventilation could dampen the joy of encountering Dukas Opera for what is sure to be the first time for nearly every patron. It’s a lesson the opera world seems to have to learn over and over again – for every “Traviata” and “Bohème” that’s endlessly revived, there are countless unknown treasures lurking in the vaults. It is high time to make the necessary excavations, just like Ariane, and free them all.
“Ariane and Bluebeard”: West Edge Opera House. 8 p.m. Friday July 29 and Saturday August 6.
“Julius Caesar”: West Edge Opera House. 3 p.m. Sunday, July 31; 8 p.m. Thursday, August 4. $10 to $140. Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. 510-841-1903. www.westedgeopera.org