06 Mar 2011
Ariadne auf Naxos, Bordeaux
Ariadne on Naxos, or you could call it Bacchus á Bordeaux. It was an orgy of art.
The BBC Proms 2014 season began with Sir Edward Elgars The Kingdom (1903-6). It was a good start to the season,which commemorates the start of the First World War. From that perspective Sir Andrew Davis's The Kingdom moved me deeply.
One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal.
Assured elegance, care and thoughtfulness characterised tenor James Gilchrist’s performance of Schubert’s Schwanengesang at the Wigmore Hall, the cycles’ two poets framing a compelling interpretation of Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte.
‘Music for a while shall all your cares beguile.’ Dryden’s words have never seemed as apt as at the conclusion of this wonderful sequence of improvisations on Purcell’s songs and arias, interspersed with instrumental chaconnes and toccatas, by L’Arpeggiata.
The acoustic of the gigantic Théâtre Antique Romain at Orange cannot but astonish its nine thousand spectators, the nearly one hundred meter breadth of the its proscenium inspires awe. There was excited anticipation for this performance of Verdi’s first masterpiece.
Richard Strauss may be most closely associated with the soprano voice but this recording of a selection of the composer’s lieder by baritone Thomas Hampson is a welcome reminder that the rapt lyricism of Strauss’s settings can be rendered with equal beauty and character by the low male voice.
Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has once again staked claim to being the summer festival “of choice” in the US, not least of all for having mounted another superlative world premiere.
In past years the operas of the Aix Festival that took place in the Grand Théâtre de Provence began at 8 pm. The Magic Flute began at 7 pm, or would have had not the infamous intermittents (seasonal theatrical employees) demanded to speak to the audience.
High drama in Aix. Three scenarios in conflict — those of G.F. Handel, Richard Jones and the intermittents (disgruntled seasonal theatrical employees). Make that four — mother nature.
The programme declared that ‘music, water and night’ was the connecting thread running through this diverse collection of songs, performed by soprano Lucy Crowe and pianist Anna Tilbrook, but in fact there was little need to seek a unifying element for these eclectic works allowed Crowe to demonstrate her expressive range — and offered the audience the opportunity to hear some interesting rarities.
‘Only make the reader’s general vision of evil intense enough and his own experience, his own imagination, his own sympathy will supply him quite sufficiently with all the particulars.
It is not often that concept, mood, music and place coincide perfectly. On the first night of Opera della Luna’s La Fille du Regiment at Iford Opera in Wiltshire, England we arrived with doubts (rather large doubts it should be admitted)as to whether Donizetti’s “naive and vulgar” romp of militarism and proto-feminism, peopled with hordes of gun-toting soldiers and praying peasants, could hardly be contained, surely, inside Iford’s tiny cloister?
‘Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,/ Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend/ More than cool reason ever comprehends.’
Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser has a rich range of vocal resources upon which to draw: she has power and also precision; her top is bright and glinting and it is complemented by a surprisingly full and rich lower register; she can charm with a flowing lyrical line, but is also willing to take musical risks to convey emotion and embody character.
‘When two men like us set out to produce a “trifle”, it has to become a very serious trifle’, wrote Hofmannsthal to Strauss during the gestation of their opera about opera.
Janáček started The Cunning Little Vixen on the cusp of old age in 1922 and there is something deeply elegiac about it.
It took only a couple of years for Il trovatore and Rigoletto to make it from Italy to the Opéra de Marseille, but it took La traviata (Venice, 1853) sixteen years (Marseille, 1869).
Gesamtkunstwerk, synthesis of fable, sound, shape and color in art, may have been made famous by Richard Wagner, and perhaps never more perfectly realized than just now by San Francisco Opera.
Luca Francesconi is well-respected in the avant garde. His music has been championed by the Arditti Quartett and features regularly in new music festivals. His opera Quartett has at last reached London after well-received performances in Milan and Amsterdam.
Manon Lescaut at the Royal Opera House, London, brings out the humanity which lies beneath Puccini's music. The composer was drawn to what we'd now called "outsiders. In Manon Lescaut, Puccini describes his anti-heroine with unsentimental honesty. His lush harmonies describe the way she abandons herself to luxury, but he doesn't lose sight of the moral toughness at the heart of Abbé Prévost's story, Manon is sensual but, like her brother, fatally obssessed with material things. Only when she has lost everything else does she find true values through love..
Ariadne on Naxos, or you could call it Bacchus á Bordeaux. It was an orgy of art.
The opera’s prologue got us pretty concerned about exactly how the Strauss/von Hofmannsthal conceit (superimposing improvised comedy on high art tragedy) would play out. It was going to happen in some sort of distressed art space where some pretty bad art (a huge, plastic sculpture) had been lifted out to make space for more, we assumed, bad art (“performance art” is at least naughty if not usually bad).
But all this turned out to be a high flying artistic extravaganza. Its riches were three fold — first it is a big opera with three great roles for sopranos, second there were three great sopranos, and third Bordeaux gave the opera a mise en scène that played with its complexities and reveled in its fun.
Performance art is as close as we come these days to commedia dell’arte, so this transcription of art form was well taken, plus performance art seems to question the nature of art more than it questions anything else and this led metteur en scène Roy Rallo to probe the depths of this silly Strauss/von Hofmannsthal tragedia cum commedia and to find out that it is in fact a fairly serious artistic treatise.
The ubiquitous wreck of a cheap sofa that inhabits most performance spaces here headquartered Najade, Dryade and Echo in various prone positions while stage hands poured buckets of dirt over them, Ariadne was seated in the neon tube outlined sand box, with the remnant, a small head (remember the huge sculpture in the prologue), of a dog’s toy that was the minotaur, and Theseus too. Echo outlined the minotaur head on the ubiquitous performance space white wall during Ariadne’s lament, and later seconded the forceful horn announcements of Bacchus’ arrival with determined throws of her yoyo. More dirt was poured on Najade and Dryade.
When it was Zerbinetta’s turn in the sand box she sang her ravishing parody in nightclub garb only to be sexually ravaged by the comedians (painting her in lurid colors). When she became Harlequin’s wife in an American gothic tableau during Ariadne’s prayer we understood all too well that all this was the trappings of ordinary, everyday mortal love in contrast to the grandiose ideal of love sought by Ariadne.
Well, Bacchus arrived and we had Orpheus and Euridice all over again. In reverse. When their gaze finally met it was all over, Bacchus disappeared into the void (all the doors onto the stage burst open — out the back we even saw the building across the street) and Ariadne was left alone on the stage as the beat-up Zerbinetta with her sad Harlequin husband exited through a side door into a snow storm.
So, all this was art, but what about life? That was of course Strauss’ Composer who had a bitter artistic pill to swallow, though this young composer thought he had found a soul mate in Zerbinetta, and he poured his heart out about it, only to be first of the opera’s lovers to learn that true love is not to be had in this life. Just then there was a bonus: the Opéra National de Bordeaux enriched Strauss’ ridiculous concoction by superimposing an operatic whim of its own — real time, curtain calls onto the prologue!
Heidi Melton as Ariadne, Elza van den Heever as The Composer and Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta
Marsha Ginsberg gave detailed design to the sets, the dirty walls and chipped tiles of a very realistic building blurring the boundaries between art and real life, and costumer Doey Lüethi further complicated this distinction with real clothing that sometimes screamed character. Lighting by Chris Akerlind cannily intermixed the real and the arty, the flashing red and green lights during the opera’s final sublime love music reminding us that all this was, said and done, performance art confusing itself with art.
Yes, it took the considerable artistry of three exquisite sopranos to pull this off. Elza van den Heever (Composer), Heidi Melton (Ariadne) and Brenda Rae (Zerbinetta) are new generation artists with beautiful, fresh and well-schooled voices that illuminate amazing histrionic depth with elegant artistry. Mlle. van den Heever literally tore up the stage in her aria. Not to mention that Zerbinetta tore up the stage as well, standing motionless for her aria, and Heidi Melton brought real gravity to the opera’s opera, sitting with her back against the wall, her legs splayed downstage, her voice lofting torrents of gorgeous tone.
Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta and Thomas Dolié as Harlequin
Conductor Kwamé Ryan drove the big moments of the opera to maximum Straussian effect, and that effect was considerable indeed, though precision and energy were wanting in the detail that Strauss lavishes on his musical story telling. This was most noticeable in the Prologue, though it is possible that this Prologue’s laxity was also the result of the heavy-handed exposition of the performance art metaphor.
The Harlequin, sung by baritone Thomas Dolié, created the evening’s most touching moments, approaching Ariadne’s sandbox with his arms outstretched during her lament, and then as Zerbinetta’s forlorn husband. The Music Master was confidently portrayed by Oliver Zwarg. Actor Martin C. Turba as the Major-domo seemed to be at odds with the musical and staging rhythms of the Prologue further deadening it. Tenor Arnold Bezuyen as Bacchus confused bellowing with singing. Najade (Mélody Loulejian), Dryade (Leslie Davis) and particularly Echo (Eve-Christophe-Fontana) brought fine singing and much pleasurable deadpan perspective to Ariadne’s suffering.