Why the difference? We might ask Leon Botstein, conductor of the City Opera run and a 1999 concert performance of the piece. Back then, he wrote:
We always want to believe that the standard repertory reflects the enduring best of music. If something is not standard and popular, we often assume that there must be a good reason. But that is frequently not the case. The truth is that in the performing arts, particularly music, what remains in the standard repertoire is the result of habits and tastes that have as much to do with convenience and prejudice as with anything we might call quality. If we listen to Ariane, we might have difficulty in finding enough fault with either the music or the libretto of this masterpiece to warrant its disappearance from the stage.This is, I think, half-right as to the Dukas. The music is certainly interesting -- a more straightforward take on the post-Wagnerian elements in Pelléas, one which nevertheless reaches some depth of mystery in, e.g., the offstage chorus of the first act. Were it easier on the voice, this music alone might've earned Ariane some fringe status in the operatic canon.
But it's hard to grasp how the author of Pelléas, one of the great literary peaks in opera, came up with this clunker. The joke about Maeterlinck & Debussy's masterpiece is that nothing happens (...and then Mélisande dies). Yet at every moment something is struggling to happen. Characters reach towards each other as strongly as those of Don Carlos; their failure, as the Schiller/Verdi characters' failure, is the drama and pathos of the piece. And more than that: that the space between these people can't be overtly pierced by them makes it the mystery of the world, a space in which the opera's flowery "symbolist" text and subtle musical shadings float as longed-for explanation, not obfuscation. It's an ideal marriage of schema and style.
Ariane et Barbe-Bleue is the opposite. The action goes straight forward, but it's the lack of impediment that makes the evening dramatically inert. Ariane neither suffers nor is threatened nor even really doubts -- she simply marches down as she came to do, brushing off token opposition from the Nurse and Bluebeard, and frees the wives (including "Mélisande"). Soon after, the wives decide they want their bondage back and Ariane, apparently unperturbed, walks off. Her only struggle is with the score.
Whether Maeterlinck's post-Pelleas concoction works as allegory (of women's lib perhaps, or wedding-night insanity?) or perfumed poetry, this dramatic nullity's been pretty much sufficient to keep Dukas' work off the stage. Nonetheless NYCO failed to make the best case for Ariane, using an overly literal, poorly lit, and too-often silly production in which serious and mysterious elements could find little foothold. Paul-Émile Fourny of Opéra de Nice did little with this City Opera directing debut.
I'd enjoy listening to the musical portion of the opera at home, in a good recording. But what first-rate soprano would bother with the killer title part? Vaness replacement Renate Behle tried gamely but was overstrained and overmatched. Ursula Ferri showed a stronger voice as the Nurse, but couldn't cope with the high parts of her big door-opening sequence. The wives sang what little they had well, as did Ethan Herschenfeld as Bluebeard. Botstein advocated impressively from the pit.
But if all these forces had been arrayed for an Ariane-as-black-comedy, set by the young Hindemith... That would've been something.