In its original form, premiered in Stuttgart in 1912, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was a one-act opera performed in a double-show, immediately after a condensed version of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (translated by Hugo von Hofmannstahl, with incidental music by Strauss). Further performances included one at His Majesty’s Theatre, London, in 1913. It was conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham who performed it again at the Edinburgh Festival in 1950.
However, in 1916, Strauss and Hofmannstahl revised the opera. The Molière play was dropped and the opera was preceded by a Prologue which consisted of a scenario for preparations (and, in fact, also of some of the musical material) of the supposedly 18th-century opera. It is this 1916 version which is now presented at the Royal Opera House.
Christof Loy’s 2002 production, as well as its current revival, is imaginative, tasteful and highly entertaining. Loy’s interpretation of both plots (those of the Prologue and the opera) and his characterisation of the roles are fully in accord with Hofmannstahl’s witty libretto and Strauss’s splendid score. There is not a single movement on stage which does not correspond to the music; the choreographic direction of the singers is exemplary.
In the Prologue, Herbert Murauer’s upstairs/downstairs sets, complete with an elevator moving between them, is surely scenery design at its best. For the opera proper the audience needs quite a bit of imagination to substitute the hotel room for a rocky island. Perhaps the designer’s concept suggests that one (like Ariadne) can be just as lonely sitting at a dressing table as at a rock on an island. On the other hand, the story-line is about mixing serious opera with unrelated comic entertainment, thus reaching a compromise between the two genres. Hence a sparsely furnished hotel room can serve as a credible symbol for a rocky island.
The Finish soprano Karita Mattila turns out a great (debut) performance in the role of Ariadne. If we consider the whole work, that is, Prologue and opera together, Mattila is fully credible as the Prima Donna of the Prologue who later performs her operatic role. However, taken the opera on its own, it is hard to identify Mattila as the abandoned, deeply saddened Ariadne. On the other hand, Mattila’s performance radiates Wagneran strength which she sustains with vocal power and dramatic intensity throughout. On conclusion of the first night, she received by far the biggest cheers among all those taking curtain calls; the audience evidently greatly appreciated Mattila’s star performance, whether Ariadne-like or not.
Strauss produced an incredibly demanding part for the role of Zerbinetta. Canadian coloratura soprano Jane Archibald looks the part, sings the fiendishly difficult bravura passages with ease, uses impressive gymnastic skills in her acting and radiates compassion as well as fun. In the Prologue, Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose is committed and passionate as the Composer; her rich tone and secure vocal technique serve her fully credible dramatic delivery well. The final encounter between the Composer and Zerbinetta is deeply moving; the artistic rapport between Archibald and Donose provides one of the most tender moments of the evening.
Exquisite lyrical beauty is also present in the gentle, returning rhyme of the three nymphs in the Bacchus scene. In their cradle song-like ‘Töne, töne süsse Stimme’ – perhaps modelled on Schubert’s D.498 ‘Wiegenlied’? – Sofia Fomina (Naiad), Karen Cargill (Driad) and Kiandra Howarth (Echo) provide sensitive contrast to Bacchus heroic music. Roberto Sacca (an Italian tenor born in Germany) delivers his taxing vocal part effortlessly and with credible dramatic skills. Sir Thomas Allen brings his vast experience, consummate skills and unblemished artistic integrity (although also a slightly worn voice) to the role of the Music Master in the Prologue.
Strauss scored the piece for a reduced orchestra of 36 players but the reduction applies mainly to the strings – six violins, four violas, four cellos and two basses – which often divide to one or two players to a part. Apart from wind, brass and timpani/percussion, there is the piano, two harps, a harmonium, and a celesta. Sir Antonio Pappano draws huge sounds from his forces in the heroic passages and appropriately scales down the lyrical sections. His tempi are not always convincing for this pair of ears, but a masterpiece like Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos can accommodate a variety of interpretations.
This is a witty masterpiece in a witty, tasteful and entertaining production. Don’t miss it.
By Agnes Kory
Photos: Catherine Ashmore