OPERA NEWS - Ariadne auf Naxos
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Ariadne auf Naxos

BERLIN
Staatsoper im Schiller Theater
6/14/15

After a string of stagings that have run the gamut from boring (La Finta Giardiniera at the Deutsche Staatsoper) to bad (Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper Berlin) to the baffling (Lohengrin at Bayreuth), the aging enfant terrible of Regietheater, Hans Neuenfels, redeemed himself in early summer with an exciting production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Deutsche Staatsoper that was an unqualified triumph (seen June 14). 

For the seventy-four-year-old director, it was it finest work in Berlin since a coolly minimalist Lear at the Komische six seasons ago. Neuenfels, who is fond of introducing unexpected and incongruous elements (rats and bumblebees, for example) to the standard repertoire, here seemed to be moving in the entirely opposite direction: he did a surprising job of stripping away all the fashionably meta accoutrements that this work has accumulated in recent stagings (including Robert Carsen’s version down the road at the Deutsche Oper and Christian Stückl’s in Hamburg). 

There wasn’t all that much on stage at any given time, but this certainly didn't feel like your run-of-the-mill “minimal” production, thanks to the vivid, intelligent directing of the principals (who all gave energetic and involved performances) and the few well-chosen props. These included a single ATM to symbolize the unseen patron (“the wealthiest man in Vienna”) and a preposterously oversized gold doorknocker for The Tenor’s dressing room, which later adorned the cage from which Bacchus emerged on Naxos. The set for opera-within-the-opera was littered with fragments of columns and other archeological rubble, which came tumbling down from the back of the stage, a gripping effect that brought down the curtain — this Ariadne being performed with intermission — with a literal bang. And while I generally take issue with directors fiddling with plot, Neuenfels’s decision to have Ariadne to take her life at the end of the work was entirely, heartbreakingly convincing. Clearly, Hofmannsthal and Strauss would have objected to this twist most retrograde to their desires, but it nonetheless was an intelligent way to critically engage with the work: the speed with which Bacchus mends and captures Ariadne’s broken heart is indeed worth questioning. 

The cast and orchestra did heroic work, which made this a rare triumph for the Staatsoper this season both on the dramatic and musical level. Ariadne is very much an ensemble piece, and the mix of ensemble and guest singers were equally impressive singly and as a unit.  

Marina Prudenskaya, who sang a rousing Azucena in last season’s star-studded Trovatore, struck the right balance between youthful impetuousness and idealistic zeal as the Composer. The Russian mezzo brought a rhapsodic drive to the role, singing with urgent tones and supple yet sturdy phrasings. Only in some high-lying passages did her voice sound somewhat strained. Finnish soprano Camilla Nylund was a hochdramatisch Prima Donna and Ariadne, singing with coolly elegant tones that were sustained by an inner core of strength and dramatic intelligence. Her aristocratic poise and lilting phrases stood in stark contrast to the Bacchus of Roberto Sacca, who came roaring out of the gate like a Tannhäuser. Nylund seemed to tame him with her intensity and resolve; the two quickly found an affecting balance that carried them almost organically to the rapturous final duet. Rounding out the main cast was the American soprano Brenda Rae, who lent her fresh, agile voice to Zerbinetta, arguably the opera’s most memorable vocal character. She sang the coquettish role with extravagant colors, an alluring texture and dazzling runs and trills.      

The minor roles were cast with uncommon care and sensitivity, from Roman Trekel’s nervous Music Teacher to Florian Hoffmann’s imperious Dance Master. Gyula Orendt was a consistently winning Harlekin, while Sonia Grané — a bright star of this season’s Turn of the Screw — vocalized with feeling and delicacy as Echo.     

Ingo Metzmacher, a frequent guest to the house, presided over a precisely detailed and fleshed out account of the lush score. As a conductor, Metzmacher is perhaps best known for the excavating lesser known works (in recent seasons, he has been seen here conducting works by Rihm and Nono), but he proved utterly convincing in tackling this standard rep work. The orchestra for Ariadne is small for Strauss’s standards; here, the musicians played from a somewhat raised orchestra pit. In this formation, they sounded more virtuosic and crisply intricate than I've heard in quite some time, especially the wind instruments with their thrillingly high tessitura.  — A. J. Goldmann  

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