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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.

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