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Review: West Edge Opera excavates a thrillingly unfamiliar masterpiece to open its season

Renée Rapier (center) as Ariane in Paul Dukas’s “Ariane et Barbe-Bleu” at West Edge Opera Photo: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

Bluebeard, according to the old folk legend, had an unusual fetish. He would marry young women and bring them back to his castle of him, where locked chambers overflowed with rubies, sapphires and diamonds. The women were never seen again.

But do we really know they were murdered, as the story tells us? Isn’t it possible that something else was going on?

That’s the heady and provocative premise of Paul Dukas’s 1907 opera “Ariane et Barbe-Bleu” (“Ariadne and Bluebeard”), a little-known masterpiece that got a rare staging Sunday, July 24, as part of the opening weekend of West Edge Opera’s 2022 season. The piece throws a fascinating light — possibly feminist, possibly not quite — on material that many of us have long been content to take at face value.

It does so, furthermore, in a score of ravishing beauty and endless invention, a breathless fusion of Wagner and Debussy that turns this oddly thick 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 robust intensity by the company’s music director, Jonathan Khuner, made the best imaginable case for the work.

Sara Couden in Paul Dukas’s “Ariane et Barbe-Bleu” at West Edge Opera Photo: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

Most opera aficionados are likely to associate this material with Bartók’s taut 1918 one-acter “Bluebeard’s Castle,” which tells the story in a relatively straightforward way. But Dukas, working from a shadowy symbolist play by the Belgian writer Maurice Maeterlinck (best known as the creator of “Pelléas and Mélisande”), is after something more psychologically probing.

In this version, the latest Mrs. Bluebeard has been 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 of her, Ariadne has no interest in jewels or riches, because they’re not forbidden to her. All she cares about is opening the door with the thickest padlock and the weightiest “Do Not Enter” sign.

Philip Skinner as Buebeard in Paul Dukas’s “Ariane et Barbe-Bleu” at West Edge Opera Photo: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

What she finds there are her predecessors, five wives who have also failed to pass Bluebeard’s test of obedience—though out of weakness rather than Ariadne’s defiant strength of character—and remain locked in the dungeon as a consequence. The opera’s entire second act is devoted to a glorious Wagnerian love scene distributed among all the women, a vivid celebration of sisterly devotion in sumptuous harmonic and orchestral colors.

In the end, though, Ariadne’s mission of liberation proves more complicated than she—or the audience—quite anticipates. I can’t say more, partly because the plot here is surprising and partly because both the literal sense and the implications of the ending are hard to pick apart.

What was undeniable, though, was the expressive potency of Sunday’s performance (the first of three). Mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier gave a heroic performance in the title role, and as her nurse de ella, alto Sara Couden — hitherto known to Bay Area audiences only in Baroque repertoire — turned out to be an equally majestic interpreter of French Impressionism. Bass-baritone Philip Skinner sang rarely but tellingly as Bluebeard, and the five wives were deftly played by Silvie Jensen, Alexa Anderson, Candace Johnson, Taylor See and Sharon Shao.

On Saturday, July 23, the season opened with a less consistently engaging account of Handel’s “Julius Caesar.” There were strong individual contributions among the cast — above all from mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, a longtime local treasure who outdid herself with a blazing and tender performance as the young Roman Sesto — and countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and soprano Shawnette Sulker, in the marquee roles of Caesar and Cleopatra respectively, held up their ends well.

Shawnette Sulker (top) as Cleopatra and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen in the title role of Handel’s “Julius Caesar” at West Edge Opera Photo: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

But the performance sputtered and stalled. Director Mark Streshinsky’s production swerved repeatedly between outrageous camp and expressive directness, without making either vein persuasive. Driver Christine Brandes struggled to bring the requisite energy or a crisp rhythmic profile to the proceedings.

Also disappointing, at least so far, was the company’s decision to make the Scottish Rite Center the latest in its long series of performance homes. It’s an impressive space, to be sure, with a big and flexible stage area and a domed ceiling that slow an air of grandeur to both performances.

Sarah Coit (l.) and Katherine Pracht in Handel’s “Julius Caesar” at West Edge Opera Photo: Cory Weaver/West Edge Opera

Unfortunately, the hall also has a ventilation system that, in an operative context, can only be described as deafening. It wheezed and rattled and moaned throughout both performances, providing an unwelcome counterpoint to many vocal numbers and intruding loudly into what would otherwise have been affecting silences.

Still, not even the hostile ventilation could dim the joy of encountering Dukas’ opera for what will surely be the first time for nearly all patrons. It’s a lesson the opera world seems to have to learn again and again — for every “Traviata” and “Bohème” that gets revived ad infinitum, there are countless unknown treasures lurking in the vaults. It’s past time to make the necessary excavation, just like Ariadne, and free them all.

“Ariadne and Bluebeard”: West Edge Opera. 8 p.m. Friday, July 29 and Saturday, Aug. 6.

Julius Caesar: West Edge Opera. 3 p.m. Sunday, July 31; 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 4. $10-$140. Scottish Rite Center, 1547 Lakeside Dr., Oakland. 510-841-1903.

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