Ariadne in Wartime

16 Jun

The reviews for the latest Glyndebourne Ariadne auf Naxos  (which I saw on 2nd June) were uniformly pretty negative.  Some of this, I could put down to singers having off days, but few people seem to have enjoyed Katherine Thoma’s production.  So my expectations were low and, as often happens, I had rather a good time.

Ariadne seems to suit Glyndebourne – they’ve been doing it since the 1950s, though there’s been a 30 year gap since the last performances here.  I think the trick is that the sheer elegance and wit of the prologue is such that it puts the audience in a good mood for the interval by which time they may feel quite benign towards the more difficult Opera.  The problem directors face is in whether they treat it as a single unified piece or two contrasting halves.  The fashion (insofar as two productions make it that) seems to be to find connections between the two.  In Vienna, Sven-Olaf Bechtholf made most of the characters from the prologue appear in the opera which became about Zerbinetta and the Composer as much as anyone else.

At Glyndebourne, Katherina Thoma decided to set it in the house of a country house looking remarkably like Glyndebourne at the outbreak of the 2nd World War. It ends the house being set on fire in an air raid.  For the opera, the house is a hospital and Ariadne is grieving for her lost lover, having had some sort of breakdown. She is clearly in the psychiatric ward.  Zerbinetta and team are an ENSA party to cheer the patients up.  Echo, Dryad etc are nurses.  At the end, Bacchus returns – the injured pilot for whom Ariadne has been waiting.  Throughout the Opera, the composer has been watching and, at the end, you feel that he has learned something about life and music.

The loss here, I suppose is the artifice of the opera and the contrast between the operatic characters and the low life and the consciously theatrical side of the piece.  The gain, I thought, was a greater sense of immediacy in the picture of a woman suffering a breakdown and the turn around in her state.  It made the opera more human and less artificial.  I can see why some will object to that.

It followed what seemed to me to be a very witty, well-directed prologue where all the points came across well and the elegance, wit and humanity of this gem shone through.  It helped having Thomas Allen as the Music Master.  I can’t imagine anyone doing it better today.  It’s a very different portrayal from his one at Covent Garden but he presented the practical, worried man desperately trying to save a disastrous situation superbly.  His German diction was outstanding.  He was matched by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the Dancing Master in a remarkable shocking pink outfit and quiff.  The two of them played their rivalry marvellously.  Cate Lindsey made a very good composer – full of priggishness and idealism of youth.  She sang her aria beautifully with a glorious rich mezzo tone and got real tenderness in the duet with Zerbinetta at the end.

William Relton made an excellent, understated Major Domo and the smaller parts were all very well in the picture.  The show bustled and you could feel the audience purring with contentment.

In the second Act, we had a really strong trio of Echo, Naiad and Dryad (can anyone tell them apart and, if you can’t does it matter when they sing as gloriously as this?).  And then there was Soile Isokoski who struck me as being in her finest form as Ariadne.  She is one of my favourite singers partly for her voice but also because of the sincerity and seriousness with which she approaches her work.  We haven’t had the opportunity to hear her in nearly enough Strauss here.  Her voice sounded gorgeous in the house – the wonderful, rich lower notes moving effortlessly upper to floating, creamy pianissimi at the top.  I was sitting quite close to the orchestra so I suspect that was why, just occasionally, I wondered if the voice were quite big enough for the role.  I bet she sounded even more fabulous further back.  She put the words across well and even if there might be more emotion to be brought out of the part, the sheer glory of the singing – reminding me of Schwarzkopf in a good way, without the mannerisms – was a joy.

Sergei Shorokhodov  as Bacchus was also in good form -once past a bit of unsteadiness at the opening, I thought he made the part sound as easy as any tenor that I’ve ever heard in the role.  The sound was strong and actually nice to listen to.  He didn’t drown his Ariadne and there was a sense of purpose behind him that I liked.

The Zerbinetta was ill and was replaced by Ulyana Alekshana.  She’s due to sing the role later in the run and had been admirably rehearsed and took the stage with complete confidence.  She looks great and has a nice personality.  Vocally she has the right sort of voice but she sounded pretty stretched at the more fearsome parts of her aria and I wanted a bit more flashiness and swagger.  Her troupe were excellent and I particularly admired Andrew Stemson’s tenor as Brighella and Dmitry Vargin as Harlequin – he has a winning personality.  What I missed was the sense of conflict that you can get between them in rather heavy-footed, witless routines.  You had to look at the programme notes to work out which was which.

Vladimir Jurowski conducted what, for me, was probably his most memorably performance here. I don’t think I’ve heard such alert, sensuous, stylish playing  even in Vienna.  He had the absolute measure of the score and the LPO played outstandingly.

So it wasn’t a completely perfect evening.  You wouldn’t want to see Ariadne done like this all the time and there were bits that you missed. On the other hand, here was an intelligent director engaging with the opera and finding a way of dealing with some of its problems and creating a very enjoyable visual experience.  And with Isokoski on form, Lindsay, Shurokhodov and Jurowski doing fabulous musical things,  there was, in tuth , very little not to like.  The audience was enthusiastic.

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