21 Jul 2009
A knock-out Ariadne auf Naxos at Munich’s Bavarian State Opera Festival
There are rare times when a critic can just enjoy, and say “Wow!”
Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra climbed out of the War Memorial pit, braved the wind whipped bay and held spellbound an audience at Cal Performances’ Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Paul Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, first heard in 1907, once seemed important. Arturo Toscanini conducted the Met premiere in 1911 with Farrar and later arranged some of its music for a 1947 recording with his NBC Symphony.
Utterly mad but absolutely right — Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos started the Glyndebourne 2013 season with an explosion. Strauss could hardly have made his intentions more clear. Ariadne auf Naxos is not “about” Greek myth so much as a satire on art and the way art is made.
“Man is an abyss. It makes one dizzy to look into it.” So utters Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, repeating what was also a recurring motif in the playwright’s own letters.
National Opera Company of the Rhine has marked this year’s Benjamin Britten celebration with a remarkably compelling, often gripping new production of the seldom-seen Owen Wingrave.
Once upon a time, Frankfurt Opera had the baddest ass reputation in Germany as “the” cutting edge producer of must-see opera.
Productions of Giuseppe Verdi’s Rigoletto can serve as a vehicle for individual singers to make a strong impression and become afterward associated with specific roles in the opera.
Just in case we were not aware that the evening’s programme was ‘themed’, the Britten Sinfonia designed a visual accompaniment to their musical exploration of night, sleep and dreams.
Poor Aida! She never seems to have anything go her way.
Is it possible to upstage Jonas Kaufmann? Kaufmann was brilliant in this Verdi Don Carlo at the Royal Opera House, London, but the rest of the cast was so good that he was but first among equals. Don Carlo is a vehicle for stars, but this time the stars were everyone on stage and in the pit. Even the solo arias, glorious as they are, grow organically out of perfect ensemble. This was a performance that brought out the true beauty of Verdi's music.
The big names were absent: Duparc, D’Indy, Debussy, Ravel and while Fauré, Chausson, Roussel and several members of Les Six put in an appearance, in less than familiar guises, this survey of French song of the early 20th century and interwar years deliberately took us on a journey through infrequently travelled terrain.
Composed between 1718 and 1720, Handel’s Esther is sometimes described as the ‘first English Oratorio’, but is in fact a hybrid form, mixing elements of oratorio, masque, pastoral and opera.
Hector Berlioz's légende dramatique, La Damnation de Faust, exists somewhere between cantata and opera. Berlioz's flexible attitude to dramatic form made the piece unworkable on the stages of early 19th century Paris and his music is so vivid that you wonder whether the piece needs staging at all.
St. John’s Smith Square was the site of Elizabeth Connell’s final London concert, intended as a farewell to London on her moving to Australia. It was rendered ultimately final by her unexpected death.
With the building of the Suez Canal, Egypt became more interesting to Western Europeans. Khedive Ismail Pasha wanted a hymn by Verdi for the opening of a new opera house in Cairo, but the composer said he did not write occasional pieces.
Back for its fourth revival, David McVicar’s 2003 production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte has much charm, beauty and artistry.
The economics of the recording companies dictate much that is not ideal. Wagner’s operas were not composed as they were in order to permit the extraction of bleeding chunks, even on those occasions when strophic song forms do occur.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro has a libretto by Lorenzo daPonte based on the French play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day or the Marriage of Figaro) by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais (1732-1799).
For its world class Easter Festival, Baden-Baden mounted a Die Zauberflöte that owed more to the grey penitential doldrums of Lent than to the unbridled jubilance of re-birth.
Once Berkeley Opera, renamed West Edge Opera, this enterprising company offers the Bay Area’s only serious alternative to corporate opera, to wit Bonjour M. Gauguin.
There are rare times when a critic can just enjoy, and say “Wow!”
The lucky audience at the Bavarian State Opera Festival’s Ariadne auf Naxos was witness to one of the most remarkably fluid and fun performances of this Richard Strauss work it has been my pleasure to see. The quirky production, every member of the cast — even deeply into the smallest roles — the conductor and the orchestra, all were of a single mind, and all at the top of their game. The result was total, unalloyed delight. It doesn’t get better than this.
From the very beginning, with dozens of mirrors wheeled on to the empty black stage, their reflections and changing placement instantly fracturing the stage focus into kaleidoscopically reconfigured crystalline structures — not unlike in the celebrated climax of Orson Welles’ classic film “Lady from Shanghai,” a chase set in a fun-house of mirrors — this genius production by Robert Carsen beautifully embodied the Hoffmanstahl/Strauss conceit of irrationally mixing up two disparate genres. If perhaps there was one too many upright pianos wheeled onstage here, or an occasional longeur there, these were minor cavils when the whole is such a beautifully realized directorial high-wire act. If theater is just smoke and mirrors, Carsen managed it brilliantly with barely more than the latter.
Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos with Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta in the foreground
The audience’s darling, as it should be, was the Zerbinetta of Diana Damrau, who proved capable of an astonishing range of physical acting, vocal pyrotechnics, and plain delight throughout the performance. Her red high heels came on and off with aplomb as she negotiated the virtuoso demands of the part and the production. She presents herself with a freshness and seemingly off-the-cuff decisions that are nothing short of daringly breathtaking. Even the most strenuous episodes came off with an irrepressible naturalness which is the opposite of studied. One hardly knows what to praise more, her musicianship or her acting — but the two cannot be separated. They form a seamless wonder, with or without those red high-heels.
But Damrau was hardly alone in this deep cast of talented artists. Each contributed his or her more than considerable best. Primadonna/Ariadne, Adrianne Pieczonka and Composer Daniela Sindram were also as magnificent in their fiery roles, and gave no grounds for anything other than complete admiration. Everyone in the cast made the most of their moments to shine. Martin Gantner (Musiklehrer) was suitably aggrieved. Burkhard Fritz was an outstanding Tenor/Bacchus. Nikolay Brochev (Harlequin), Ulrich Ress (Scaramuccio), Steven Humes (Truffaldin), Kevin Conners (Brighella), Christian Rieger (Lakai), Guy de Mey (Tanzmeister), Kenneth Robertson (Offizier), Aga Mikolaj (Najade), Nicole Piccolomini (Dryade), Sine Bundgaard (Echo) were all excellent. Todd Boyce, who two nights before had been one of the clown-chorus of Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, here was an amusing Wigmaker. Non-singing actor Johannes Klama was a most officious Haushofmeister. Bravi tutti.Scene from Ariadne auf Naxos with Adrianne Pieczonka as the Primadonna in foreground
Under the baton of Bertrand de Billy, he Bavarian State Opera Orchestra did itself more than proud, effortlessly supporting the singers and the stage action. All played exquisitely, with verve and delightful, drawing exquisite colors out of this perversely refined yet tatterdemalion score, wheezing harmonium included.
My one and only complaint is the lack of intermission between Vorspiel and “opera” proper, especially since the wooden seats of the Bayreuth-like Prinzregenten Theater begin to test the physical limits of the audience for such a long period, reminding one why German, apparently alone among languages, has that particular word Sitzfleisch, or sitting endurance. But more importantly, a toast would have been welcome for such a bravura display of artistry before plunging into the “performance” proper, It also forced the Composer in this production to spend the second half of the work standing mute at the foot of the stage among the audience, looking on. A missed opportunity for the audience to collectively celebrate their great good luck to be able to witness such a marvelous, dizzyingly witty and rich realization of this complex work.Daniela Sindram as Der Komponist
The performance took place in the Bayreuth-like art-deco Prinzregenten Theater, the middle-sized of the Bavarian State Opera’s three opera houses, located by Munich’s Isar river.
Raphael Mostel © 2009