Thursday, 26 June 2014

Ariadne auf Naxos - Royal Opera House

Karita Mattila's presence guaranteed success for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House. Strauss was a pragmatic man of the theatre, who knew how a Big Name could win audiences. Mattila delivered. Her presence was commanding - every inch the glamour queen the primadonna is meant to be. She had the grand gestures and right amount of theatrical excess. But Ariadne auf Naxos isn't about ancient Greece. It's an opera about an opera, or rather,  as the Composer discovers, about the un-making of an opera. 

The Composer  (Ruxandra Donose) wants to write  about Ariadne, abandoned on an island. Strauss builds in references to Mozart, making wry jokes on the nature of art. If the Composer were really good he wouldn't be imitating someone else.  The Composer disappears after the Prologue, but Mozart lingers eternal. One of the Dryads, Ariadne's handmaidens, is costumed as Mozart. Appropriately, this Dryad is Echo (Kiandra Howarth). But even Mozart can't save things, as the show is taking place in the house of "the richest man in Vienna". His Major Domo (Christopher Quest) clashes with the Music Master (Thomas Allen). The man with the money wants fireworks and comedians and what he wants will happen.

This production, directed by Christof Loy, with designs by Herbert Murauer, emphasizes the duality in the opera. "Upstairs" in the Prologue is elegant but empty, and soon dispensed with. Loy stresses the individuality of each singer, so their purpose can be understood even by those in the audience who aren't familiar with the opera.  This further underlines the concept of multiple realities so fundamental to this opera.  That is the magic of theatre: it's not literal reality. Singers become supernatural maidens, and comic rogues become Commedia dell'arte archetypes. But Ariadne, too,  lives in a strange, unnatural reality . She's been on Naxos since Theseus dumped her there after giving her a kiss to steal the secret of the Minotaur. For years, she's lived in a cave driven half mad by her dreams of love.  It's Bacchus (Roberto Sacca) who brings her deliverance.  And Bacchus, the god of wine, brings intoxication, the illusion of escape.

Visually, the second act glows with jewel colours, emerald and sapphire, lit with details of gold and candlelight. The room is lined with late baroque wallpaper depicting Arcadian scenes, rich European fantasies of wilderness. Because we're seduced by this luxury and beauty, the ultimate tragedy hits even harder.  Ariadne isn't going to find happiness. The future lies with Zerbinetta (Jane Archibald)  Ariadne obsesses about death and misery. Zerbinetta gets on (and gets off), exuberantly, full of vigour and life. Strauss is writing about the making of theatre, but also commenting on music.  Looking backward is all very well, but the nature of true art is originality and creative renewal.

Karita Mattila's Ariadne is courageous. Mattila throws out her notes in the second act with bravado,  diva reborn. but Strauss created the part for an older singer, thoughtfully limiting vocal extremes to flatter voices that are still loved, and function well enough, even if they aren't quite at their peak. Zerbinetta's music, on the other hand, races up and down the scale, demanding great technique and coloratura display  Archibald's  "Grossmächtigen Prinzessin" was done with vigorous zest. Although she doesn't have the finesse of some of the great singers who have done this role, her vivacity compensates. Ariadne  may be comforted by the words, but how discomforting the singing must be for any older singer.

Ruxandra Donose sang a remarkably convincing Composer. It was hard to recognize her costumed as a man, but the distinctive timbre of her voice was unmistakable. What a pity Strauss dismisses the part: Donose makes the composer sound interesting as a person. Very strong singing in the other parts, enhanced by a staging that emphasizes their place in the opera. Markus Werba's Harlequin was superb,, as energetic and as witty as Archibald's Zerbinetta, which is quite saying something. Excellent ensemble work : Werba, Jeremy White, Wynne Evans and Paul Schweinester interacted  with precision, moving as a unit even when they weren't close together. That's good movement direction (Beate Vollack).

Antonio Pappano has been working flat out this week with Manon Lescaut (read my review here). He must have the stamina of a superman. I could have used more "fireworks" at the cataclysmic end of the Prologue. Pappano is a genius Puccini conductor, but he gets the lively gaiety in Strauss quite well.

One big plus : no ritual booing. Booing is a form of intimidation.  Booers have no right to inflict their opinions on others.  Almost inevitably booers don't really know the score and don't have the ability to take on board the simple fact that other people might be allowed different opinions. Booing is vulgar and coercive, a form of expression used by those too ill bred and ill informed to respect anyone other than themselves. Perhaps the penny has dropped that booing inhibits creativity and is fundamentally anti-art. 

No comments: