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STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos

spacer Hillebrecht, Grist, Jurinac; Thomas, von Kesteren, Feldhoff, Schöffler; Vienna Philharmonic, Böhm. Production: Rennert. Arthaus Musik 107255, 130 mins., subtitled

AriadneDVD

The opening words of the Prologue of this 1965 Salzburg Ariadne tell us what kind of performance to expect. Paul Schöffler's sprechstimme delivery of the Music Master's line "Mein Herr Haushofmeister" has the force of an edict; in a moment, he conjures this opera's unique aesthetic realm. Schöffler had sung the role in Strauss's presence more than two decades earlier, in a performance commemorating the composer's eightieth birthday. Karl Böhm, the conductor of that 1944 rendition, leads this one as well; under his baton, even the relative youngsters in the cast sing with the authority of artists buttressed by the work's performance tradition.

Some elements of Böhm's work here may be surprising to modern ears. As good as the Vienna Philharmonic sounds, its ensemble sometimes falls short of absolute precision, especially in the two preludes. The comedians dance with heavier tread than in, say, James Levine's Met performances of the piece. But Böhm leads with awesome solidity. The whole piece unfolds in assured, rhythmically grounded paragraphs. The Prologue is especially impressive; its kaleidoscopic assemblage of speech, recitative, arioso and full-scale lyricism fuses into a cohesive musical statement. 

The transcendent Komponist of Sena Jurinac bears the Prologue aloft. It is a performance that proceeds simultaneously on two levels. On the one hand, Jurinac is convincingly the serious youth, her dark-flecked soprano suggesting boyishness, her intent, focused manner that of the committed artist. On the other, she is every bit the great Strauss prima donna, exulting in the composer's lyrical invention and bringing his vocal lines to their furthest rhapsodic potential.

Reri Grist's Zerbinetta is equally successful — not just because of her nimble high-wire negotiation of "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," or the vodka-gimlet tang of her leggiero soprano, or, for that matter, the extraordinary charm of her looks and demeanor. She is also as complex a Zerbinetta as I've ever witnessed, suggesting the character's wisdom and sadness as well as her sparkling playfulness.Bacchus is Jess Thomas, who makes the notorious tenor-killer of a role sound easy. His voice has the necessary steel, but the overwhelming impression is of honeyed lyricism.

Hildegard Hillebrecht, a late-in-the-day replacement for Christa Ludwig, is the Ariadne. It would be churlish to call her the weak link in the cast, but hers is not an entirely successful portrayal. Her voice is not always securely pitched, and it loses color on top. Moreover, her phrasing doesn't have the point and thrust her colleagues achieve. Still, she is an appealing presence and a true jugendliche dramatische; one can sense the warm buzz the voice created as it filled Salzburg's Kleines Festspielhaus.

The DVD features fine monophonic sound, but the murky black-and-white imagery obscures some of the details of Günther Rennert's staging. Still, it's an exemplary production, notable for its restraint: it brings out the opera's abundant wit without ever overplaying its hand. The finale includes a lovely effect: Ariadne's rock disappears, leaving her and Bacchus floating in a starlit expanse, with the host's chandeliers floating above. The image is both comic and achingly beautiful — just like Ariadne itself. spacer

FRED COHN

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Current Issue: November 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 5