Monday, 17 June 2013

Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne

Kate Lindsey (Composer) in Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss at Glyndebourne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Kate Lindsey (Composer) in Ariadne auf Naxos
by Richard Strauss at Glyndebourne. Photograph: Tristram Kenton
Katharina Thoma's new production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne was the first new production of the opera there for a long time and, as such, highly anticipated. Thoma is a young German director making both her UK debut and her debut directing Richard Strauss. She, her set designer Julia Muer and costume designer Irina Bartels set the prologue in an English country house during World War 2, with a nod to Glyndebourne's own history. (Seen Sunday 18 June) The prologue concluded with a bomb dropping on the house. The opera proper in the second half was ditched, instead we were back in the same country house which was now a hospital. Amongst the wounded soldiers there was also the composer and Ariadne. The naiad, dryad and echo were nurses, Zerbinetta and her troupe returned as ENSA entertainers and Bacchus was a returning, wounded airman. There were strong performances from the cast with Soile Isokoski as Ariadne, Kate Lindsey as the composer, Ulyana Aleksyuk as Zerbinetta, Sergey Skorokhodov as Bacchus, Thomas Allen as the music master, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as the dancing master and Dmitri Vargin as Harlequin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski.


Julia Muer's set for the prologue was attractively realistic and Irina Bartels 1940's costumes were very stylish, though the wartime setting did not seem to add anything to the opera. Thomas Allen was a tower of strength as the music master and his impressively detailed and rather moving performance was one of the things which held the drama together. The other lynchpin in this half was Kate Lindsey's composer. Young, believably boyish and finely sung, Lindsey was the intense key component; highly strung bordering on the neurotic, but with a beautifully bright toned, flexible voice, Lindsey was clearly at home in one of Strauss's great mezzo-soprano roles. Her big solo moment was notable for the intensity and suppleness of Lindsey's voice, and in the scene with Aleksyuk's Zerbinetta, the two developed a strong rapport.

Aleksyuk displayed great charm as Zerbinetta, performing with great poise despite a rather revealing costume. Thoma, in common with many modern directors, seemed to want to reduce Zerbinetta to a purely sexual being though in fact there is more to the character than that. Aleksyuk was nicely supported by her troupe, Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jurgens and Andrew Stenson, with the addition of Gary Matthewman the young pianist, who acted as the group's accompanist and both here and in the opera proper played part of the orchestral piano part.

Both Isokoski and Skorokhodov did their best with their small comic cameos in this part. Ablinger-Sperrhacke made a delightfully camp dancing master, with Michael Wallace as the wigmaker William Relton clearly relished his role as the major-domo, with Frederick Long as the Lackey and Stuart Jackson as the Officer.

The prologue ended with a bomb dropping on the house and, as the composer had his final pained outburst, the set spectacularly burst into flames, perhaps the most spectacular moment in the whole staging.

So far, so good; though the setting was not particularly illuminating Thoma's personen-regie ensured that the performance was stimulating and satisfying. There was a rather jarring element however, the rear of the stage contained the set of the opera, simply a small desert island with a palm tree and this palm tree drooped suggestively at key moments introducing the sort of pier-end humour which is alien to Strauss and Hofmannsthal.

Things took a rather more worrying turn in the second part, the opera proper. Leave aside the puzzling fact that Ariadne was in bed in an otherwise all male ward (something that would surely have never have happened in the 1940's), and the fact that at the end there was no mythic transformation. Forget also that by turning Zerbinetta and her troupe into ENSA entertainment you removed some of the delicate counterpoint between the two worlds. If we concentrate on the basics, Strauss and Hofmannsthal intended the opera to be about love, with the two women, Ariadne and Zerbinetta, having different and complementary views, but the entire staging seemed to turn on Thoma's view that both Ariadne and Zerbinetta's view of love and sexual relations was pathological.

Ariadne is in hospital because of her fragile mental state and falls in love with another inmate. Zerbinetta articulates the healthy view that you need to stay true to one man at a time, treat him like a god, but there's always another one waiting. But Thoma has the nurses inject Zerbinetta and wrap her in a strait-jacket at the end of Grossmachtige Prinzessin. (In an interview in The Guardian, Thoma said that 'She is not well, not at all. She is obsessed by sex, by men. And during the war, when men and women came together and made love, it all happened very quickly, because they did not know if they would be alive tomorrow. It was a very explosive time – they were dancing on a volcano.') The following harlequinade is played as a highly sexual charade, with the troupe now dressed as nurses (the ward is virtually empty) for their own entertainment. There was a great deal of over-sexualised behaviour, with Zerbinetta's top notes equated with sexual stimulation (another example of pier end humour). Frankly, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth.

The problem was that the singing was all so fine and the performances so well attuned to the staging. Isokoski made a very fine Ariadne, though the production meant that she was even more self-absorbed than ever. In the original, the stage shifts between Ariadne and Zerbinetta's realities, but here there was no such shift, just the hospital with Isokoksi marooned on her own and we never really got to see her reality, it was made clear from the outset that she was ill. But Isokoski turned in some very, very fine Strauss singing indeed. Ana Maria Labin, Adriana di Pola and Gabriela Istoc as Naiad, Dryad and Echo were similarly finely tuned to Strauss's writing and produced some finely balance singing.

Aleksyuk was simply brilliant as Zerbinetta, coping with the elaborate coloratura and using it for the director's purpose. She had a great troupe around her, with Dmitri Vargin as a very sympathetic Harlequin, James Kryshak as Scaramuccio, Torben Jurgens as Truffaldino and Andrew Stenson as Brighella.

Thoma has the composer present for much of the second part, he is also an inmate of the hospital clearly shell shocked and obsessed by his score of Ariadne. The scene opened with Lindsey looking intently at the score almost as if the composer was imagining the sounds of the prelude in his head. Lindsey was intensely believable in this act, and having the composer present was a fascinating linking device. But I'm not sure whether it was anything other than a device.

Sergey Skorokhodov was a bit stiff as Bacchus, but then the role is rather impossible and he was meant to be a damage war ace. Whilst his voice was not ideally relaxed, it did have the advantage of being consistent in the entire range. And at the end, he and Isokoski managed a musical transfiguration which was missing in the staging.

Vladimir Jurowski conducting a finely grained account of the score, with some lovely playing from members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Ultimately the production seemed to be more about Thoma's attitude and strange humours, than Strauss and Hofmannsthal's opera. There were some very fine performances indeed, and the post-interval audience loved the rather coarse element to the humour. But Thoma and her team did not ultimately convince, and Strauss and Hofmannsthal's opera remained something of a problem child.
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