The Burden of Liberty

Classic Arts Features   The Burden of Liberty
The enigmatic heroine of Ariane et Barbe-bleue, offshoot of many legendary figures, offers the forbidden golden key, "the only one that matters...." As Paul Dukas' opera comes to New York City Opera, Marion Lignana Rosenberg unlocks the door.

"No one wants to be liberated. Liberation is costly because it is the Unknown, and … human beings will always prefer a familiar bondage to the awesome uncertainty that makes up most of the weight in that 'burden of liberty'."

Paul Dukas saw freedom as the basic concern of Ariane et Barbe-bleue, his opera based on a text by Maurice Maeterlinck. Winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize for Literature, the Belgian Maeterlinck (1862-1949) wrote poems, essays, short stories, and plays, but is best known in the English-speaking world today through his connection to two early 20th-century operas: Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande Maeterlinck's play of the same name, and Ariane et Barbe-bleue, Dukas' 1907 setting of a libretto that Maeterlinck originally intended for Edvard Grieg.

Maeterlinck was a leading exponent of Symbolism, the literary movement that gave priority to indirection and rippling associations of sensations and ideas. The poem "Correspondences," from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal (1857-68), became an early manifesto for the Symbolist movement:

Nature is a temple in which living pillars sometimes let out confused words; man crosses it through forests of symbols that observe him with knowing glances….

In this "profound tenebrous unity," the poem continues, "perfumes, sounds, and colors respond to one another." "Forests of symbols," "confused words," "profound tenebrous unity": Baudelaire's text exalts ambiguity, fusing the sensory and spiritual worlds. One of the verses in the French text‹"comme de longs échos qui de loin se confondent" ("like long echos that mingle in the distance")‹magically enacts the phenomenon it describes, blending sense and sound through repetitions of long, dark, nasal syllables. Words and music become one.

Symbolism stood in stark contrast to Romanticism and Naturalism, two dominant 19th-century aesthetic schools. Compare Maeterlinck's elusive Mélisande with the forceful, sharply drawn characters of Verdi's Rigoletto and Ernani, two operas based on plays by Victor Hugo, the avatar of French Romanticism. Contrast Maeterlinck's mythic settings and characters‹"a forest" for Pelléas et Mélisande, "a vast, sumptuous hall in Bluebeard's castle" for Ariane‹with the gritty specificity (1820 Seville, a brigadier from the provinces, a gypsy cigarette girl) of Bizet's Carmen, inspired by Prosper Mérimée's once-shocking novella of the same name.

With its emphasis on what one critic called "the confusion and intermingling of all sense impressions," Symbolism took root in many arts. "Music has this over painting: It can bring together all manner of variations of color and light," wrote Debussy, whose saturated harmonies, keen ear for instrumental hue, and frequent mining of paintings and poetry for inspiration (Whistler for the Nocturnes, Mallarmé for the Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune) show a pronounced Symbolist bent. In visual art, the mystical, dreamlike imagery of Moreau, Redon, and Klimt shrink from the heroism and vivid engagement with nature of Delacroix or Constable.

While Maeterlinck's Mélisande and Ariane both inhabit mystifying, dreamlike worlds, more unlike heroines can hardly be imagined. In Opera as Drama, Joseph Kerman describes Mélisande as "a mysterious, beautiful young creature who suffers quietly, asks nothing, and never acts." Given to inchoate fears and longings, the shadowy Mélisande brings ruin to the half-brothers Golaud and Pelléas. Ariane, by contrast, seems lit from within. "One must disobey; that is the first duty in a threatening, arbitrary order," she sings. Ariane shatters the castle windows to offer "true clarity" to Barbe-bleue's imprisoned wives‹one of whom, incidentally, is a long-haired waif named Mélisande.

Drenched in the glow of gems and the light of compassion and knowledge, Ariane nonetheless has an air of mystery in that she draws in her wake the echo of many legendary figures. She recalls Eve, whose curiosity led to humanity's banishment from Paradise. To some Christian theologians, this "happy fall" robbed women and men of blissful innocence but also freed them to win redemption and salvation by taking up the "burden of liberty" evoked by Dukas.

In Greek mythology, the mother of us all is another inquisitive female, Pandora. For all the mayhem that she wrought by opening the box that contained the world's evils, Pandora left humankind with its most precious legacy: hope. Similarly, Ariane offers her sisters the vision of "a world flooded with hope" in the final scene of Dukas' opera.

Pandora herself came into being as punishment for the crimes of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and taught human beings the various crafts and trades. Both Prometheus and Ariane seek to enlighten and long for freedom. Prometheus refused to submit to Zeus' will, inspiring Aeschylus to write of him: "Champing against the bit as a new-yoked colt, you struggle and fight against the reins." Ariane gives voice to similar sentiments in the opening scene of Ariane et Barbe-bleue: "The golden key is forbidden; that is the only one that matters…… What is permitted will teach us nothing."

Ariane's namesake is Ariadne, the maiden who gave Theseus the skein of thread with which he freed himself from the Minotaur's labyrinth. Across the centuries, Ariadne inspired dozens of operas, including works by Monteverdi, Handel, Richard Strauss, and Martinu°. A revealing comparison can be made between Ariane and one last operatic heroine: Elsa, the hapless bride of Wagner's Lohengrin, who is undone by her curiosity. As a condition of her marriage, Elsa promises never to ask the mysterious knight's name, but Ortrud, like the serpent in Paradise, drives Elsa to pose the fatal question. Our hearts ache for Elsa‹how could it be otherwise, given Wagner's radiant music? But Lohengrin's terms can strike today's women and men as unjust, even infantilizing.

Psychologist Bruno Bettelheim examines these issues in his study of the Eros and Psyche myth. Psyche agrees never to look upon her lover Eros, who visits her only in darkness, but is overcome by her need to know. A drop of oil from her lamp wakens Eros, who then leaves her. Psyche undergoes a series of trials (including another failed test of her curiosity) before being reunited with her swain.

In The Uses of Enchantment, Bettelheim reads the Eros and Psyche story as an allegory of maturity and developing consciousness.

Despite all warnings about the dire consequences if she tries to find out, woman is not satisfied with remaining ignorant about sex and life. Comfortable as an existence in relative naïveté may be, it is an empty life which must not be accepted. Notwithstanding all the hardships woman has to suffer to be reborn to full consciousness and humanity, the stories leave no doubt that this is what she must do.

Eve, Pandora, Elsa, Psyche: To one degree or another, these women invite suffering and disaster by refusing to remain ignorant. Ariane does not achieve all her aims‹the subtitle of Maeterlinck's libretto is "La Délivrance inutile" or "The Useless Rescue"‹but she is alive and compassionate, a creature of the light unafraid of the "burden of liberty." Modern audiences can learn much from her and from Maeterlinck and Dukas' wondrous opera.

A frequent contributor to Newsday and Time Out New York, Marion Lignana Rosenberg won a Newswomen's Club of New York 2004 Front Page Award for her essay, "Re-visioning Callas."

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