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Ariadne in Vienna

20 Jan

The Vienna State Opera is one of my favourite opera houses.  I fell in love with it on my visit, in 1982.  I arrived in Vienna and saw that it was Otello with Domingo and Price.  It was my first Otello and the first time I had seen either of the singers live.  There was a queue, which I joined and which turned out to be for standing places.  My place cost me the equivalent of 50p and I came out hooked on Otello, Domingo and Vienna.  I cannot think of a better way of encouraging an opera-going habit than to enable people to get to the opera for that price and if there is one thing I would change about the Royal Opera House, it would be to place a large standing area at an equivalent place in the Stalls Circle at a similar price.

Since then, I’ve seen a mix of performances, some good, some not.  There are two problems with Vienna: the patchiness of the casting and the variability of the productions, neither helped by the fact that rehearsal periods are pretty short.  On the other hand, it is also capable of producing some wonderful evenings: two years ago I saw Werther with Kaufmann and Koch in a really thoughtful production by Andrei Serban which was probably the finest performance of that opera that I’ve seen.

Anyway, on my visit this year, I decided to avoid Fledermaus (not a great cast) in favour of a good New Year’s Eve meal at Steiereck and got instead to Ariadne auf Naxos on 2nd January.  This is a new production (first night just over a fortnight ago) and the casting looked promising.

Before this, my view of Ariadne was that it’s a pleasant enough opera that I can take or leave, with some really marvelous moments, an enjoyable prologue but the opera goes on a bit.  I suspect that this view was due for revision but that it’s an opera that you need to get to know.  This was my sixth visit to the opera over 27 years but I’d not listened to it in between and this was the first time I really felt I could get to love the piece and I’ve listened to it a lot since.

Partly this was to do with Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production which I found among the most convincing that I’ve seen.  Bechtolf finds a link between the prologue and the opera which has never been so apparent in any production that I’ve seen.  Both are about compromising ideals but Bechtolf suggests that, just as Ariadne finds unexpected happiness with Bacchus, so the same can happen with the Composer and Zerbinetta.  So the prologue cast do not go home at the end of the prologue but take part in the opera.  You see them sitting in the audience watching the opera; the dancing master directs the proceedings, the composer plays the piano for Zerbinetta and provides her with the ever more fearsome cadenzas for her aria (she rejects the final one) and the final image is of the two of them embracing after Ariadne and Bacchus had left the stage.  The opera is about them rather than anyone else.

The prologue itself begins in a huge music room with a view out to the garden.  Zerbinetta and her team arrived from the garden, looking in at the windows, rather like a group of refugees or, indeed, five characters in search of a composer.  The rest of the prologue was done very wittily and professionally, though possibly more understated than I’m used to.  There was an admirable Major Domo from Peter Matič and a splendidly concerned an powerless Music Master from Jochen Schmeckenbecher and neatly camp Dancing Master from Norbert Ernst.

The music was very good indeed.  I hugelyadmired Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting and the smooth, very subtle playing of the Philharmonic.  He caught the chamber quality of the work, while allowing the glorious instrumental solos to come out beautifully.  This was great music-making.

The cast was not bad at all.  I hugely enjoyed Krassimira Stroyanova’s gloriously sung Ariadne.  The voice sounded just right for the role and she managed the depths of grief in Es gibt ein Reich very successfully.  She acted wittily and relished the opportunities of being a Prima Donna.  Stephen Gould was a full-voiced Bacchus who made the role sound, if not grateful, then at least not as much of a trial as it can be.

We were due to have Christine Schäfer as the Composer but she cancelled.  Instead we had Stephanie Houtzeel, a mezzo rather than a soprano, but displaying a gloriously rich voice with strong attention to the words and well up to the complexities of Bechtolf’s production.  I wouldn’t mind hearing her, and indeed Stroyanova, at the ROH in the opera and lots of others.  Daniela Fally was an accurate, characterful Zerbinetta who was just a bit small-voiced, I felt, and vocally she didn’t have quite the star quality that makes an audience leap out of its seats after the aria.  I thought Adam Plachetka an excellent Harlequin and the remainder of Zerbinetta’s troupe and the smaller parts were well taken.

So, this was a hugely enjoyable performance – a really elegant, thoughtful performance of the opera.  Hand on heart, I doubt that it was of the quality of some of the earlier casts that the programme reminded us of (when the previous production was new they had Böhm conducting with Baltsa, Gruberova (making her debut), Janowitz, King, Berry and Kunz.  That was in the 1976.  I wonder whether this production will last as long and how far Bechtolf’s careful, detailed direction will survive the rought and tumble of Vienna’s system.  I’d like to see more of Bechtolf’s work – he seems to be a fixture in Vienna at the moment.  It’s worth catching, though, if it’s on when you’re there and the cast looks promising.