The appeal of Ariadne auf Naxos (for me anyway) is the acknowledgment that underneath it all, opera (and all other forms of “high art”) is really show business. Richard Strauss was a practical man of the theater and he cared very much about maintaining his expensive lifestyle. There’s an evergreen tongue-in-cheek quality to Ariadne that I love. Of course, irony and humor are one of the first casualties in opera productions. The latest video from Glyndebourne is no exception.
Ariadne (the musical/opera part anyway) was originally conceived as a divertissement at the end of a very long play by Hugo von Hofmannstahl. The premiere in 1912 was not a success, so both the composer and librettist went back to the drawing boards and made the prologue a nice little domestic comedy set in a Viennese nobleman’s home.
The man of the manor has demanded an opera, and the Komponist is under pressure to scrap his lofty musical ambitions and work with a commedia dell’arte group. There’s an intermission, and then the “opera” starts. That’s the 1916 version, and that version has been the popular opera that’s performed around the world.
In this production, director Katharina Thoma’s intentions are noble. She resets the Viennese nobleman’s home into a WWII Englishman’s manor. Very Remains of the Day. People are milling about having their tea and cucumber sandwiches when a bomb drops. The war has started. Time to get Very Serious.
The second act (the “opera”) has the manor transformed into a temporary bomb shelter. The Komponist is wandering around in some kind of PTSD stupor. Ariadne is a traumatized patient. The horrors of the war has caused Zerbinetta to become oversexed and “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” ends with her being in a straitjacket. Despite all the bombs and death the opera ends on an uplifting note as Bacchus (here a hearty soldier) swoops in and gives the whole bomb shelter some optimism. Hail Britannia!
It’s an interesting (if somewhat self-regarding) concept but it’s undermined by the now-familiar Glyndebourne production aesthetic, which favors a bourgeois slickness. The production manages to look cheap and pretentious at the same time. The nurses in the second act are wearing cute little Red Cross uniforms that one might find at a Frederick’s of Hollywoood Halloween sale. Why is Zerbinetta prancing around in Betty Grable garters? It’s a typical regie-lite production in that it wants to do something different, but not really different, and the final result pleases nobody.
The cast is pretty decent. Soile isokoski (Prima Donna/Ariadne) has a pleasingly rich voice with a nice layer of cream in the middle. However … there’s no getting around the fact that she’s just homely. I have no idea who did her costuming/makeup but whoever did deserves to be fired, as her face looks almost pock-marked and she’s wearing an ill-fitting hospital gown. i know it’s the concept of the production, but she quite literally looks like she just rolled out of bed at 5 am in the morning. Too bad, because she’s a lovely artist.
Kate Lindsey (Komponist) is directed to stalk around the stage silently in most of The Opera but in the Prologue she does a good job conveying the Komponist’s neurotic personality, and she also has a pleasing timbre. She’s got up to look like K.D. Lang in another example of the poor costume design.
I admit I have no idea how Sergey Skorokhodov did as Bacchus, because I find the music for Bacchus so bombastic that I’m not sure anyone can make it sound good. He didn’t make my ears bleed, and that’s enough. Only Laura Claycomb was a slight disappointment as Zerbinetta. She looks darling, but Grossmächtige Prinzessin” was workmanlike rather than magical. She hit all the notes, but didn’t shine in any of them. The aria seemed to stretch her slender soprano and she sounded weak and thin. Thomas Allen was an aging but still elegant presence as the Music Master.
Vladimir Jurowski leads a tight, disciplined performance that didn’t even allow a smattering of applause after Zerbinetta’s aria. The Glyndebourne ensemble singers are really always a joy to hear—they really do assemble a great team.