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4.7.08

Ionarts-at-Large: Ariadne in London

Our thanks to guest critic Robert R. Reilly for contributing another review from London.



The July 1st closing performance of the Royal Opera House’s Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, was completely full. Word must have spread. The singing was uniformly fine – no, better than fine, in fact, superb – as was most of the acting.

This opera thrives on the juxtaposition of the sublime and the ridiculous, the sacred and the profane, the high and the low, self-sacrificing Eros and banal erotica. The humor comes from the forced contrasts, as a group of vulgar entertainers are inflicted on the performance of an opera seria depicting the subject of Strauss’ title. It is a classic play within a play.

I will not recount the plot here, but simply say that the Prologue, depicting the set up of the opera seria and the conflict between the serious Composer and the entertainers was well-produced even in its time transposition to an art deco era. Everyone was good, especially mezzo Kristine Jepson as the Composer, Major Domo Christoph Quest and Music Master Thomas Allen.

The second part, the actual Ariadne opera, was a triumph for Gillian Keith as Zerbinetta, whose foxy acting was every bit as good as her spectacular coloratura singing. She was humorous and fun to hear and watch. The excellence of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo (respectively, Anita Watson, Sarah Castle, and Anna Leese), who accompany Ariadne throughout, was a measure of the high vocal standards of this production. Their “Schläft sie?” trio was sublime. Echo was particularly impressive, as was young Miss Watson, who obviously has a big future ahead of her.

available at AmazonR.Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos, Voigt, von Otter, Dessay, Heppner / Staatskapelle Dresden / Sinopoli
Strauss ends up apotheosizing what he mocks in the transcendent love scene of self-surrender at the end. The sublime wins. Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus was extremely impressive, and Deborah Voigt as Ariadne soared. (One only wished that she had not been directed to keep a uniformly expressionless smile on her face no matter what the text was saying.) This Ariadne, of course, coming full circle for Voigt: It was this very production that she was famously sacked from, for not fitting into that now infamous little black dress. One gastric bypass surgery and four years later, the role suites her just as well, and the dress fits. [A short promotional film with Voigt makes light of the entire incident.] Conductor Mark Elder (correction: Sir Mark!) and the Orchestra ably supported the proceedings and conveyed the sense of transformation.

My only complaint involves the incoherence of some of the production values in the second part. What happened to the art deco time-setting that was so carefully put forth the Prologue? I am not sure what possessed director Christoph Loy to caparison Zerbinetta’s fellow actors in a kilt, military fatigues, and a black leather motorcycle outfit. The visual humor from this was confusing and cheapening. What was it supposed to call attention to? Itself? On the other hand, Loy created a special moment when Ariadne lowers the mirror at her dressing table to see Bacchus where once she looked only at herself. Thankfully he also removed all the visual rubbish from the closing scene and let the glorious music speak for itself.

The booklet for Ariadne was beautifully produced and substantively informative, meeting the Royal Opera’s usual high standards in this regard.

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Update: I have added production photos on Flickr which you can view here.

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