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Ariadne auf Naxos

Glyndebourne Festival

In Review Glyndebourne Ariadne hdl 813
Isokoski and Allen in Ariadne at Glyndebourne
© Alastair Muir 2013

When Glyndebourne first staged Ariadne auf Naxos, in 1950, it was in the initial version of Strauss and Hofmannsthal's piece (1912), in which a performance of Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme is succeeded by the opera seria (with comic additions!) proper. But all subsequent East Sussex editions have been in the more familiar second version (1916), which was used again when Glyndebourne opened its festival season with a new production on May 18. 

Even so, it was an unusual show in some respects. Direction was in the hands of a U.K. debutante — the young German Katharina Thoma — working with her regular designers, Julia Müer (sets) and Irina Bartels (costumes). Their inspiration came from the English country-house tradition, of which Glyndebourne remains a preeminent example; wealthy landowner John Christie launched his quickly world-renowned opera festival in 1934, in a theater built next door to his country mansion. Müer's set was not depictive of Glyndebourne itself, rather a generic representation of a country-house interior of the time. She played the Prologue more or less as is, with intelligent comic business and sharp interaction between the principals animating the scene.

Then she dropped a bomb — or rather three, in quick succession. In the skies visible beyond the stage windows appeared the menacing planes of the Luftwaffe. They caused immediate damage to the ceiling of the room, and a small stage fire started as the curtain came down. On to the opera proper, and the house had become a hospital for the wounded — the fate of many English country houses during the war years. (Glyndebourne, in fact, became a home for children evacuated from heavily bombed London.) 

While the transposition of the original setting in the Prologue made sense, the opera seria played badly in its new context. Ariadne had been injured at the end of the Prologue, and she lay on her bunk bed for most of the action, except when prevented by a Red Cross nurse from taking her own life by drinking poison obtained from a medical cabinet; eventually she was rescued from her predicament by the arrival of Bacchus, a wounded fighter pilot. Zerbinetta, meanwhile, had apparently suffered psychological damage, her sparkling coloratura representing mental disturbance rather than joie de vivre and necessitating her confinement within a straitjacket. Such touches made heavy weather of what is, however serious in terms of Hofmannsthal's philosophical content, essentially an entertainment; it also gave fuel to the (doubtless unworthy) view prevalent among U.K. opera fans that German directors simply have to refer to World War II at some point in their stagings, whatever the occasion.

Some striking individual performances maintained solid interest throughout the evening, despite the broken-backed concept. Though not in her best voice, Soile Isokoski held on to Strauss's long lyric lines with firm expressive intent; her climactic phrase in "Es gibt ein Reich" soared beautifully. Despite some fuzzy tone, Laura Claycomb's Zerbinetta attained all the high notes required and moved in between them with accuracy and expertise. Outshining both of them on this occasion was the Composer of Kate Lindsey, whose luminous tone matched a performance of keen focus and intensity; it was scarcely her fault that her unscheduled presence throughout the opera proper seemed otiose. Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov struggled with the high, heroic writing allotted to Bacchus, with no significant success. Thomas Allen, however, made a fascinating character-study out of the harassed, constantly concerned Music Master, and Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke's Dancing Master was a fine match for him, while William Relton enunciated the Major-Domo's lines to clipped perfection. Leading his last Glyndebourne show as the festival's music director, Vladimir Jurowski drew delicious sounds from the players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit, obtaining an easy, buoyant momentum in both halves of Strauss's entrancing score. spacer


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