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STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos

spacer Fleming, Archibald, Koch; Smith, Borchev; Staatskapelle Dresden, Thielemann. Production: Arlaud. Decca/Unitel Classica DVD 074 3809, 136 mins., subtitled


Singing takes center stage in this Baden-Baden production of Ariadne auf Naxos. This occurs partly by default, since director Philippe Arlaud keeps the action on one track at a time, reducing the turmoil and thus the fun in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's comedy of two theater troupes disputing the same stage. At least the director's well-oiled devices don't seriously distract from conductor Christian Thielemann's illuminating perspective on the score.

There's a warm, vocal quality in the prelude as played by the suave Staatskapelle Dresden, but the hallmark of the performance is the palpable cohesion between the conductor and singers. One senses more focus on sustaining and shaping long phrases than on tone quality per se or flashy speed. Character traits — Ariadne's integrity, the Composer's drive, the solidity of Bacchus and the volatility of Zerbinetta — find expression in the timing and shaping of the lines. Thielemann's Strauss is not radical, but solidity makes it especially eloquent.

As for the staging, rather than pit characters against one another, Arlaud serves as a traffic light; he makes them take turns. He directs Fleming's Prima Donna, in the Prologue, too mildly — with modest gestures, no train-kicking — and the singer's own affability leaves no sharp edges, either here or in her encounters with Zerbinetta. Protest and outrage are entrusted mostly to the boyish sturm und drang of Sophie Koch's Composer — a taut, engaging portrayal. Ariadne's early scenes are drab and peripheral; she starts out covered with a black cloth, lying on two small chairs, near a sign reading "Insel" (island). 

That affords Zerbinetta and her buffo sidekicks all the more space and color to play with, but — while amusingly costumed in 1920s Oliver Hardy getups — they pale in comparison with the balletic, acrobatic verve of the Met version (thanks especially to Natalie Dessay). The classical trio of Nyad, Dryad and Echo also moves sparingly, but the three women sing with more sparkle and precision than the male supporting players. 

Though not a dancer in the Dessay mold, Jane Archibald is magnetic, witty and winning as a flapper Zerbinetta à la Sally Bowles. With her almost casual brilliance in the aria "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," Archibald stops the show. Yet there's no sense of anticlimax in the final scenes, thanks to focused, ardent singing by Fleming and her Bacchus, rich-toned Robert Dean Smith. Just as in her major solos, especially the climactic arc in "Es gibt ein Reich," Fleming's innate lyricism, with the conductor's support, very nearly makes up for some lack of sheer power.

After all but ignoring the eponymous heroine, the production heaps the wrong kind of attention on her at the end. A gleaming Minotaur tows her onstage, swaths of gold lamé enhance her basic black garb, and the camera pulls back for a panoramic view of chairs swept aloft like a flock of birds. It's awkward, but not quite awkward enough to break the spell cast by the final duet. spacer


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