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Bartok vs Dukas: Q&A with Renée Rapier and Jonathan Khuner

Jonathan Khuner conducts and Renée Rapier stars in Ariane & Bluebeard, Dukas' rarely performed opera, onstage this summer at The Oakland Scottish Rite. In the more popularly known Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) by Bartók, Bluebeard’s wife is named Judith. In Dukas’Ariane & Bluebeard (1921), Bluebeard's wife is named Ariane – but both

are based on Charles Perrault’s folktale

La Barbe Bleue first published in Paris in 1697.

Renée and Jonathan sit down to discuss the similarities, differences, and the art of doubling down.

Portrait of Charles Le Brun

Renée and Jonathan, you both have experience with these two different operas. Let’s talk about Judith and Ariane – written only 3 years apart but with very different interpretations.

How do these 2 composers imagine these 2 women? Are the versions at all consistent?

Jonathan Khuner: Judging from what we witness in the two women’s approaches to Bluebeard’s inner sanctum, I think Judith and Ariane both were deeply attracted to him precisely because of the mystery, the lure of his unknowable secrets. Renée Rapier: I feel Bartók’s Judith is a much more innocent soul. She carries the insecurity of a young bride: alone and away from home for the first time against her family's wishes. Bluebeard asks her several times if she regrets her decision and each time she doubles down on her devotion to him.

JK: Both have made a commitment.

RR: Yes, but Dukas’ Ariane is a much more confident and commanding person. She arrives with a servant (whom she treats as such), is unimpressed by the wonders of the castle, and confronts Bluebeard with sheer defiance. I imagine she behaved however she needed to get to the altar, but in Dukas’ Ariane & Bluebeard, she never expresses love for him, only the desire to find out his secret.

Do you think that Judith and Ariane want the same thing?

JK: They both want to achieve the impossible: to become close to Bluebeard. For Ariane it will be a kind of victory; for Judith a personal fulfillment. RR: Judith wants desperately to connect with this man she’s married, to really know him. But Ariane wants to solve a mystery, save some women, and take this man down a peg or two.

Composers Béla Bartók and Paul Dukas

Bartók’s Judith doesn’t form any plans for Bluebeard’s past wives and instead joins them in imprisonment. Is she a victim? RR: Yes and no. I think by the time the 7th door is opened she is unable to escape. She speaks less and less and is unable to move (on stage I imagined a drug taking effect or something like that).

JK: I think of Judith as reaching a frozen end-state when there is nothing more about Bluebeard for her to discover. Yes, she’s imprisoned, but she has imprisoned herself by destroying the magic of the unknown.

RR: Up until that point, Judith is making the decision time after time to find the truth of who Bluebeard really is because, I believe, she loves him. That choice makes the difference, at least until the whole undead imprisonment thing…

JK: Ha! Spoiler alert… So then with Dukas’s Ariane, is she a victor or just an anti-victim? RR: Ariane is absolutely a victor! She infiltrated a castle, quelled a peasant rebellion, solved a mystery, freed her sister wives as much as they dared be free, defeated and humiliated her captor. Oh: and lived to tell the tale.

JK: Doesn’t Ariane end up just as much a loser as Judith? Ariane hasn’t created anything meaningful for herself or others by her deconstruction of Bluebeard’s reign - He is now a broken man with his one pitiable possession (the ability to fool others into supporting his image) shattered by Ariane’s overpowering ability to find truth. The other wives are no better off than they were before - in fact they now will have the mental conflict of enslaving themselves to a straw man. And Ariane hasn’t achieved any connection. What does she have to look forward to after the curtain??

RR: Hm. In interesting… in learning more about feminist thought in the late 19th / early 20th century, the ending makes total sense to me. She is the femme nouvelle: challenging power structures and making radical decisions, including leaving the wives to make their own. It isn’t the most satisfying ending to be sure (I’d give him the Scarpia treatment if it were me), but it is truthful.

Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet in Ariane et Barbe-bleue at Théâtre du Liceu de Barcelona

This is more directly for you Renée: Musically, how does the vocal writing of each of the two roles determine the way you inhabit the minds of the two characters? Do they fit you in different ways?

RR: Vocally, Ariane is simply a massive sing compared to Judith and sits much higher for much longer. There are only a few moments in the Bartók that I have to devote more attention to technical strategy, but the Dukas is a constant game of give and take so as to not damage my voice or sabotage a big vocal moment down the line. It helps that Ariane is such a resolute and confident character.

JK: Judith is a powerhouse of relentless optimism, with strong emotional reactions to every step of her new experience. So, the vocal writing is chameleon-like, shifting with each phase of the narrative - - hushed and subdued at one point, then fierce, high and rapid at another, etc. Ariane’s vocal writing is more contained and consistent, reflecting her intellectual stability and emotional poise (also French aesthetics). Her vocal lines have much more arc and long design.

Which composer do you think respects the character more, or gives better music to her?

JK: I think Dukas might have been thinking (as indeed Maeterlinck very specifically had been) of an actual lover who could match him, while Bartók was imagining an ideal partner who could understand him. Bartók’s Judith has better music for characterization, but Dukas’ Ariane has better music for sheer singing vitality.

RR: It’s very clear who respected Bluebeard as a character more! Does either of the two women really love Bluebeard? RR: I feel that Judith does love Bluebeard. I’ve toyed with the idea of her being duplicitous… but playing her with amorous curiosity makes the story so much more tragic not just horrific.

JK: I think they both want to love Bluebeard, but they both fall short. For Ariane, Bluebeard would have to transform to become worthy of her love. Though symbolic, her story is real in that the relationship has a believable conclusion - - breaking up and moving on. Judith’s story is metaphorical; her journey is into the castle of Bluebeard’s psyche, and her love is needy.

If you had to be one of these 2 women in real life, which would you choose?

RR: Oh being a woman in a feudal system sounds terrible in general! I suppose I’d rather be Ariane simply because she gets out alive and tries to save lives while doing it. It is interesting that she defends the other women not only from Bluebeard but also from the peasant men storming the castle. Women, then and now, must constantly be aware of male violence no matter our station in society. I’m glad we get to see a version of the Bluebeard tale that centers the experience of the women.

JK: I can’t perfectly imagine myself as a woman, but I think my artistic side identifies more with Judith and her search for deep answers, while my practical side identifies with Ariane’s steady drive to rectify injustice. Between the men? I identify more strongly with Bartok’s Bluebeard who struggles to integrate memory past ego, and the demands of an insistently inquisitive partner. I have no sympathy for Dukas’ unenlightened Bluebeard. The best that can be said about him is that he doesn’t really try to stand in the way of his remarkable wife.

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