Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



9780393088953.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Performances

A Donizetti world premiere: Opera Rara at the Royal Opera House

There may be sixty or so operas by Donizetti to choose from, but if you’ve put together the remnants of another one, why not give everyone a chance to hear it? And so, Opera Rara brought L’Ange de Nisida to the concert stage last night, 180 years after it was composed for the Théâtre de la Renaissance in Paris, conductor Sir Mark Elder leading a team of bel canto soloists and the Choir and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in a committed and at times stirring performance.

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

PROM 5: Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande

Stefan Herheim’s production of Debussy’s magnificent 1902 opera for Glyndebourne has not been universally acclaimed. The Royal Albert Hall brought with it, in this semi-staged production, a different set of problems - and even imitated some of the production’s original ones, notably the vast shadow of the organ which somewhat replicates Glyndebourne’s 1920’s Organ Room, and by a huge stretch of the imagination the forest in which so much of the opera’s action is set.

Thought-Provoking Concert in Honor of Bastille Day

Sopranos Elise Brancheau and Shannon Jones, along with pianists Martin Néron and Keith Chambers, presented a thrilling evening of French-themed music in an evening entitled: “Salut à la France,” at the South Oxford Space in Brooklyn this past Saturday, July 14th.

Dido in Deptford: Blackheath Halls Community Opera

Polly Graham’s vision of Dido and Aeneas is earthy, vigorous and gritty. The artistic director of Longborough Festival Opera has overseen a production which brings together professional soloists, students from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and a cast of more than 80 south-east London adults and children for this, the 12th, annual Blackheath Halls Community Opera.

Summer madness and madcap high jinxs from the Jette Parker Young Artists

The operatic extracts which comprised this year’s Jette Parker Young Artists Summer Performance seemed to be joined by a connecting thread - madness: whether that was the mischievousness of Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe, the insanity of Tom Rakewell, the metaphysical distress of Hamlet, or the mayhem prompted by Isabella’s arrival at Mustafà’s Ottoman palace, the ‘insanity’ was equally compelling.

Mefistofele at Orange’s Chorégies

This is the one where a very personable devil tells God that mankind is so far gone it isn’t worth his time to bother corrupting it further.

Mascagni's Isabeau rides again at Investec Opera Holland Park

There seemed to me to be something distinctly Chaucerian about Martin Lloyd-Evans’ new production of Mascagni’s Isabeau (the first UK production of the opera) for Investec Opera Holland Park.

The 2018 BBC Proms opens in flamboyant fashion

Anniversaries and commemorations will, as usual, feature significantly during the 2018 BBC Proms, with the works of Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy and Lili Boulanger all prominently programmed during the season’s myriad orchestral, vocal and chamber concerts.

Banff’s Hell of an Orphée+

Against the Grain Theatre brought its award winning adaptation of Gluck’s opera to the Banff Festival billed as “an electronic baroque burlesque descent into hell.”

A Choral Trilogy at the Aix Festival

What Seven Stones (the amazing accentus / axe 21), and Dido and Aeneas (the splendid Ensemble Pygmalion) and Orfeo & Majnun (the ensemble [too many to count] of eleven local amateur choruses) share, and virtually nothing else, is spectacular use of chorus.

Vintage Audi — Parsifal, Kaufmann, Pape

From the Bayerisches Staatsoper Munich, Wagner Parsifal with a dream cast - René Pape, Jonas Kaufmann and Nina Stemme, Christian Gerhaher and Wolfgang Koch, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, directed by Pierre Audi. The production is vintage Audi - stylized, austere, but solidly thought-through.

Flight Soars High in Des Moines

Jonathan Dove’s innovative opera Flight is being lavished with an absolutely riveting new production at Des Moines Metro Opera’s resoundingly successful 2018 Festival.

Fledermaus Pops the Cork in Iowa

Like a fizzy bottle of champagne, Des Moines Metro Opera uncorked a zesty tasting of Johan Strauss’s vintage Die Fledermaus (The Bat).

A spritely summer revival of Falstaff at the ROH

Robert Carson’s 2012 ROH Falstaff is a bit of a hotchpotch, but delightful nevertheless. The panelled oak, exuding Elizabethan ambience, of the first Act’s gravy-stained country club reeks of the Wodehouse-ian 1930s, but has also has to serve as the final Act’s grubby stable and the Forest of Windsor, while the central Act is firmly situated in the domestic perfection of Alice Ford’s 1950s kitchen.

Down on the Farm with Des Moines’ Copland

Ingenious Des Moines Metro Opera continued its string of site-specific hits with an endearing production of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land on the grounds of the Maytag Dairy farm.

Des Moines’ Ravishing Rusalka

Let me get right to the point: This is the Rusalka I have been waiting for all my life.

L'Ange de feu (The Fiery Angel)
in Aix

Prokofiev’s Fiery Angel is rarely performed. This new Aix Festival production to be shared with Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki exemplifies why.

Ariane à Naxos (Ariadne auf Naxos) in Aix

Yes, of course British stage director Katie Mitchell served up Richard Strauss’ uber tragic Ariadne on Naxos at a dinner table. Over the past few years Mme. Mitchell has staged quite a few household tragedies at the Aix Festival, mostly at dinner tables, though some on doorsteps.

The Skating Rink: Garsington Opera premiere

Having premiered Roxanna Panufnik’s opera Silver Birch in 2017 as part of its work with local community groups, Garsington Opera’s 2018 season included its first commission for the main opera season. David Sawer's The Skating Rink premiered at Garsington Opera this week; the opera is based on the novel by Chilean writer Roberto Bolano with a libretto by playwright Rory Mullarkey.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Performances

<em>Ariadne auf Naxos</em>, Glyndebourne
27 Jun 2017

Glyndebourne's wartime Ariadne auf Naxos

It’s country-house opera season, and Glyndebourne have decided it’s time for a return of Katharina Thoma’s country-house-set Ariadne auf Naxos, first seen in 2013. Thoma locates Strauss’s opera-about-opera in a 1940s manor house which has been sequestered as a military hospital, neatly alluding to Glyndebourne’s own history when it transformed itself into a centre for evacuees from east London and the Christie children’s nursery became a sick bay.

Ariadne auf Naxos , Glyndebourne

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Angela Brower (The Composer)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

When, in the Prologue, the Dancing Master jokes that the commedia dell’arte troupe’s vaudeville would be better performed after the new opera that His Lordship has commissioned - because once ‘the great and the good’ have stuffed themselves at dinner they will be bored stiff by the opera, nod off, and be ready for some more zippy entertainment - Glyndebourne patrons might feel that the self-referential nudges are getting a bit sharp.

I’m not sure how many meta-layers one has to plunge through before we’re into surreal territory, but there is certainly plenty of scope for farce during Thoma’s Prologue. The Composer, an over-sensitive idealist, becomes desperate and distraught when he learns that his patron - originally a nouveau riche in eighteenth-century Vienna - has decreed that his maiden opera, a lofty rendition of the myth of the god Bacchus rescuing Ariadne from Naxos, must, owing to time pressures over the dining arrangements, be performed simultaneously with a low-brow comic romp.

During the orchestral prelude, the Music Master and a few lackeys fuss about with malfunctioning front curtains. As the fraught preparations unfold, servants mount step-ladders to pin up patriotic bunting choreographed to the gloriously sensual peaks of Strauss’s score, while grumpy army personnel and petulant singers whizz back and forth slamming doors behind them. The palm tree on the ‘set’ of Naxos wilts, emasculated by drought or by the thought of the entertainment ahead, who knows. A barbershop quartet in natty green-and-white striped blazers put their feet through their paces and try out their poses (Strauss’s score indicates that they enter in ‘goose-step’ which despite the period setting Thoma wisely eschews), while the Prima Donna dons a leopard skin coat and, towering over the haughty Major-Domo, threatens to flounce out in pique.

The only one with a cool head is Thomas Allen’s Music Master and even he is momentarily wrong-footed by the butler’s announcement of His Lordship’s unusual request. As unswervingly dependable as ever, Allen’s diction and acting is superlative in the secco recitative: he placates the chest-puffing Tenor, destined for the role of Bacchus, and cajoles the diva soprano - she’ll be deemed even more sublime when judged against such riff-raff - and all prepare to get the show underway.

As the troupe’s leading lady, Zerbinetta, tries to win round the despairing Composer with a kiss, Strauss and Hofmannsthal entwine the opera’s two themes: the role of art in society and the nature of true love. Is this kiss, as Zerbinetta suggests, just a fleeting instant never to be relived or, as The Composer hopes, an eternal moment never to be forgotten?

Troupe and Z.jpg Four comedians (Daniel Mirosław, Björn Bürger, Manuel Günther, François Piolino), Dancing Master (Michael Laurenz) and Zerbinetta (Erin Morley). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Attention is diverted, however, by looming shadows which are cast by the wings of a Luftwaffe squadron that swoops low over the gardens. The House takes a direct hit, the blast of explosive sparks usurping the promised firework display. Dinner guests, downstairs staff and artistes evacuate the burning building, with just the Composer left behind, writhing in despair, clutching his score and begging to be allowed to die with his integrity and artistic ideals intact: ‘Tod und Verklärung’ indeed.

At this point, Strauss asks us to sit back, watch the ‘hybrid entertainment’ and judge for ourselves between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, and between unwavering faithfulness and cheerful promiscuity. Thoma, however, does not present us with the opera-within-an-opera but side-steps into a different narrative. The director professes to wish us to imagine that ‘something major happens between Parts 1 and 2’ and that the catastrophe of war has thrown The Composer ‘into a more urgent situation’.

So, we return to the manor house a few months later and discover that it is now serving as a hospital for the wounded and traumatised. Instead of naiads we have Florence Nightingales who tend to the nightmare-afflicted PTSD sufferers. To account for the presence of Zerbinetta and the harlequinade, Thoma turns them into ENSA entertainers who are preparing a wartime variety show to perk up the patients.

I’m not sure that soft shoe shuffles and musical hall ditties are the best kind of music therapy for the severely traumatised. When the sleeping Ariadne wakes, she entreats her entertainers to be relieved of the heartbreak of life; for a moment, I was reminded that the popular translation of the acronym ENSA was ‘Every Night Something Awful’.

In fact, the dapper quartet - Björn Bürger (Harlequin), François Piolino (Scaramuccio), Daniel Mirosław (Truffaldino) and Manuel Günther (Brighella) - croon charmingly and gambol with panache. And, taken on its own terms Thoma’s concept works well. The problem is that it has nothing to do with Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s intention that after the ‘realism’ of the Prologue we should be offered an artifice, the juxtaposition cleverly guiding us to interrogate the relationship between art and life. In literalising the question - making the Composer ‘face the reality that not only artistic interferences but the outside world are breaking into his ivory tower’ - Thoma disturbs the subtle balance and interplay devised by the original creators.

That said, this cast are so good that one can push such matters aside and simply enjoy the fantastic singing. Angela Brower’s Composer has theatrical presence and flashes with fury when his dream debut is being sabotaged. Brower is convincingly elevated and ecstatic when singing of the redeeming power of music, shaping the arioso beautifully.

Erin Morley’s frivolous, flirtatious Zerbinetta injects some vitality amid the misery and morbidity. When teasing The Composer, Morley apes his lyricism with tenderness, and her soprano sparkles through the roulades of her virtuoso showpiece, in which she advises Ariadne to adopt a laissez faire worldliness in her romantic liaisons. Her agility and reliability at the top did not seem to merit the punishment - being locked into a straitjacket - that the staid ward sisters inflict upon Zerbinetta.

Ariadne.jpg Lise Davidsen (Ariadne). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

To say that Lise Davidsen is head-and-shoulders above the rest is not just a reflection on her statuesque height. Davidsen’s gloriously full and shining soprano transforms Ariadne - draped in a black hospital dressing-gown - back into a ‘goddess’. It’s no effort for Davidsen to swell through Strauss’s elated vocal peaks, her soprano bursting with lustre, but she can hold her huge voice back, too, shaping cool threads of sound to convey Ariadne’s vulnerability. Her reminiscence of love with Theseus was one of those moments when time seemed to stand still, triggering thoughts that at the premiere of the lament’s progenitor, Monteverdi’s 1607 setting of the same myth, it was recorded that ‘There was not one lady who failed to shed a tear’. And, in her joyful anticipation of death, Davidsen retained a grace and nobility which rose above the context.

Thoma struggles to make Bacchus’s arrival and subsequent wooing of Ariadne convincing. Bacchus has escaped from the sea nymph Circe and when he is spied approaching Naxos, Ariadne mistakes him first for Theseus and then for Hermes the Messenger of Death for whom she has been calling. AJ Glueckert’s Bacchus is not water-borne - the hospital is clearly not located by the seaside - but arrives by air. He’s a Battle of Britain pilot and it’s not clear who or what he’s escaped from, but once he has clambered through the window he’s quickly urged by the dulcet trio of Naiad (Hyesang Park), Dryad (Avery Amereau) and Echo (Ruzan Mantashyan) to continue his song and assuage Ariadne’s grief.

Bacchus.jpg AJ Glueckert (Bacchus). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

When Hofmannsthal wrote to Strauss clarifying the ‘meaning’ of the end of the opera, the composer encouraged him to publish what has become known as the ‘Ariadne letter’: the librettist explains that Ariadne and Bacchus are ‘transformed through mutual influence - she was prepared to die but reborn as immortal heavenly body; Bacchus realises the full nature of his divinity’. In the hospital ward, such thoughts seemed a long way off. Believing that she is about to be conducted to the land of the dead, Davidsen blindfolds herself and kneels before Hermes/Bacchus, but he seems unconcerned during her appeal to be released her from earthly suffering, preferring to read the newspaper. Fortunately, Glueckert’s appealing tenor is youthful and rich, and he has the stamina required to survive Strauss’s seemingly endless denial of the need for a perfect cadence. The final, lengthy duet certainly was ‘godly’.

Conducted by a sprightly Cornelius Meister, the London Philharmonic Orchestra played with airiness and clarity, the chamber-like forces rising to the challenges of Strauss’s instrumental sonorities. The lead clarinet and horn were especially elegant.

In a programme article, Thoma describes the opera as both a debate about merit of high and low art and ‘a journey from despair and disappointment to hope’. Her white hospital robe effectively becoming her wedding gown, Ariadne retreats behind the bed-curtains - which have been miraculously hoisted to the ceiling and are being gently stirred by wafts of air (has Bacchus left the window open?) - where she and Bacchus can be heard in rapturous celebration of their love.

The Composer reappears bearing a suitcase - he’s been discharged having apparently recovered from his mental anguish - and is amazed to espy his former idol canoodling with a fighter-pilot cum Greek god. In his astonishment, he spots the score of his opera lying on the table and flicks through to the final pages. There is a pause, a wry smile, a quick glance back at the transfigured couple, before our ‘hero’ departs reconciled, redeemed, restored. It is as if, in the opera’s final moments, Thoma has remembered The Composer’s climactic phrase from the Prologue: ‘Musik ist eine heilige Kunst’.

Claire Seymour

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Ariadne - Lise Davidsen, Composer - Angela Brower, Zerbinetta - Erin Morley, Bacchus - AJ Glueckert, Music Master - Thomas Allen, Dancing Master - Michael Laurenz, Scaramuccio - François Piolino, Harlequin - Björn Bürger, Brighella - Manuel Günther, Truffaldino - Daniel Mirosław, Naiad - Hyesang Park, Dryad -Avery Amereau, Echo - Ruzan Mantashyan, Major-Domo - Nicholas Folwell, Lackey - Edmund Danon, Officer - John Findon; Director - Katharina Thoma, Conductor - Cornelius Meister, Set Designer - Julia Müer, Costume Designer - Irina Bartels, Lighting Designer - Olaf Winter, London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):