For oenophiles, the name Bacchus et Ariane may conjure delights of the famous Parisian wine shop, while visitors to the National Gallery may first think of the Titian painting, but to Albert Roussel the Ovidian tale provided the inspiration for a new style of ballet music, diametrically opposed to his earlier success, The Spider’s Feast.
Although there are many parallels between the lives of Roussel and Maurice Ravel (they were both, for example, ambulance drivers in The Great War), musically Roussel’s career mirrors much more closely that of another de facto Parisian composer, Igor Stravinsky. In the world of the ballet, the rhythmic drive and lushly rounded Romantic melodies created for Diaghilev in the Firebird run parallel to and are roughly contemporaneous with Roussel’s Le Festin d’araignee (1912–14), while twenty years later Bacchus et Ariane—with its sets and costumes designed by de Chirico—anticipates the clipped, truncated phrasing of such neoclassical works as the Russian master’s Jeu de cartes.
One major difference between the two ballet composers was the adaptability of their works for the piano. Stravinsky never created away from the keyboard, while Roussel, like Berlioz before him, heard all of his mature music as fully formed orchestrally. This is evidenced in a work like Bacchus et Ariane by the complex and yet diaphanous contrapuntal writing and the establishment of a unique and fragile sonic universe. Roussel conceived of his theater music symphonically, so much so that the two suites from the ballet heard this afternoon constitute the entire score for the original production. Strictly speaking, they are not suites at all: This is the complete ballet, just without dancers.
Act I finds Theseus landing on the island of Naxos after rescuing Ariadne and a group of youths from the Minotaur. The early choreography, which includes Theseus recreating the kill in dumbshow, is sinuously circuitous, suggesting the labyrinth at Crete. A cloaked stranger approaches and Ariadne is drawn to him. Some token resistance from the young men is stifled when the figure reveals himself to be the god Bacchus (some versions of the original Greek myth have Dionysus alert Theseus in advance of his intentions for Ariadne). Bacchus lays Ariadne on a rock and imperiously orders the others to depart the island. Bacchus begins a passionate dance around the slumbering body of his conquest which leads to that most delightful of all classical ballet devices, as Ariadne dreams that she joins him in sensual terpsichorean display.
In Act II, Ariadne awakens and spots the galley of Theseus on the horizon. In despair, she flings herself seaward, only to land instead in the arms of Bacchus. Their kiss is transformative, as the entire island bursts into new life. Fauns and Bassarids emerge, expressing their joy through ecstatic dance and the offering of a cup of wine to Ariadne. Parenthetically, it is this moment in the Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal opera Ariadne auf Naxos from 1912 that is most hilarious, as a troupe of vaudevillians cavort in the ocean while the “serious” god and maiden intone their lofty pseudo-Wagnerian love duet on shore.
Of course, the audience expects a Bacchanale and Roussel delivers in glorious Technicolor. All ends with the apotheosis of the maiden, as Bacchus leads her to the summit of the highest peak, forever crowning her with stars.