Tuesday 17 June 2008

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera, 16 June 2008

Royal Opera House

Prima Donna/Ariadne – Deborah Voigt
Composer – Kristine Jepson
Music Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Dancing Master – Alan Oke
Wigmaker – Jacques Imbrailo
Lackey – Dean Robinson
Officer – Nikola Matišić
Tenor/Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
Zerbinetta – Gillian Keith
Harlequin – Markus Werba
Scaramuccio – Ji-Min Park
Truffaldino – Jeremy White
Brighella – Haoyin Xue
Naiad – Anita Watson
Dryad – Sarah Castle
Echo – Anna Leese
Major Domo – Alexander Pereira

Christof Loy (director)
Andrew Sinclair (revival director)
Herbert Murauer (designs)
Jennifer Tipton (lighting)
Beate Vollack (choreographer)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Mark Elder (conductor)

Of the three occasions on which I have now seen this production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I enjoyed this the least. It still had its good points but there was in general less focus than upon either of the previous outings. Christof Loy’s production had been the first of Antonio Pappano’s new regime at Covent Garden. As such, it had made a considerable impression, with smart theatrical values lavished upon an extremely well-chosen work: in some senses, the ultimate ‘opera about opera’, which manages both to celebrate and gently to send up all of our ideas concerning what the art-form is and what it should be.

The opening scene, in which the house of the ‘richest man in Vienna’ is displayed, the ground floor gradually rising to reveal beneath stairs the multifarious preparations for the forthcoming entertainment, remains a considerable coup de théâtre. However, the recurrence of a problem from the very first night, in which the change of scenery had necessitated an interval longer even that that planned, seemed less excusable and more irritating on a second revival. The point of the production is surely that, by mirroring in the Prologue the surroundings of the Royal Opera House itself, the audience realises that the attitudes being expressed on stage relate to its own preferences and opinions. To quote Horace, as so many have since, ‘Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur’ (‘Change but the name, and the tale is told of you’). If attention is unduly drawn to the stage machinery, especially the on-stage lift, in itself, then the work is vulgarised; one can step out to the foyer during the interval, should one really wish to watch a lift in action. It seemed to me, then, that the tightness of Loy’s original production was lost in Andrew Sinclair’s revival. The Personenregie seemed at times somewhat aimless, more so in the Opera than in the Prologue. This applied especially to Zerbinetta’s troupe. The original delight one had taken in the inappropriate juxtaposition of the antics of a motley commedia dell’arte crew with Ariadne’s opera seria was replaced, at least at times, with a sense of the arbitrary. For one thing, the choreography sometimes seemed straightforwardly embarrassing, rather than representing embarrassment. I was also puzzled by an inconsistency, which I assume must have been there all along, although I do not recall it. It was not clear why Zerbinetta’s men all changed into white tie and tails at the end of the Prologue, in order to appear on stage, only to emerge on stage during the Opera dressed quite differently. I then realised that the other characters also emerged alternatively attired. If the preparation we had witnessed had not indeed been preparation at all but something quite separate, dissociated from the following entertainment, then Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s finely-wrought interplay between Prologue and Opera was considerably slighted.

Musically too, this was a less impressive performance than had previously been the case. Pappano’s direction of the initial performances remains one of the best things I have heard him do, although it was eclipsed by the subsequent wisdom of Sir Colin Davis. Mark Elder received extremely warm applause on arriving in the pit, which was perhaps a response to the news that he too will soon be a musical knight. His view of the work, however, did not really seem to have settled; it certainly lacked coherence. There were moments, often the most Romantic ones, at which everything, or almost everything, came together and sounded glorious, not least the daringly slow speeds at which some of the Composer’s most beautiful music was taken. During the Opera, however, some stretches of the score merely sounded inappropriately slow, even dragging. The earlier stages of the Prologue, moreover, often sounded rushed and there was little sense of a greater symphonic whole. Insofar as one may consider the orchestra separately from its direction, it generally sounded good, though not outstanding. There were some magical Mozartian moments from the woodwind and the strings, when given their head, soared as if they were no longer of chamber-sized proportions. On the other hand, there were a few rough edges and minor slips.

The cast also proved more mixed than on previous occasions. Sir Thomas Allen approached perfection in reprising the role of the Music Master. Every word and every phrase were made to tell, although it was a pity that he was saddled with a silly wig. Jacques Imbrailo presented a vivid, wonderfully camp cameo as the Wigmaker; this Jette Parker Young Artist deserves to go far. I was less sure about the Scaramuccio and Brighella, who were adequate, no more. As for the rest of Zerbinetta’s troupe, Jeremy White acted well and sang reasonably, but Markus Werba was truly first-class. Possessed of a charismatic and most imaginatively dark stage presence, he proceeded to lavish a Lieder singer’s attention to verbal and musical detail upon his part. He may be renowned as a Papageno, a role he assumed splendidly for the Salzburg Festival under Riccardo Muti, but I should now dearly love to hear – and to see – him as Don Giovanni. He and Allen outshone the rest of the cast, which is not really as it should be. It was nevertheless fun to have Alexander Pereira, director of the Zurich Opera, add another wryly nonchalant - and on this occasion, unscheduled - appearance as the Major Domo to his roster; it was also good to see the health fascists confounded by having him smoke on stage. Gillian Keith seemed to grow into the character of Zerbinetta during the Opera, having sounded a little too anonymously light of voice in the Prologue. She delivered her coloratura fearlessly but wanted the depth of character that many artists have brought to this most delightful of roles. Kristine Jepson was no Irmgard Seefried. Her closing moments, in which the Composer appears finally to be voicing Strauss’s own beliefs, were movingly delivered, yet too many of her earlier lines were curiously lacking in shading. It is a cliché to describe Bacchus, or indeed any of Strauss’s tenor roles, as thankless, yet it is and they are. Robert Dean Smith sounded better than many, although there were uncharacteristic moments of strain after Bacchus’s arrival. He rose splendidly, however, to the demands of his final peroration. Deborah Voigt, however, delivered rather less than I had expected. She proved a convincing Prima Donna but an oddly wayward Ariadne. There were moments at which her soprano sounded truly glorious: both secure and lustrous. There were also far too many passages in which not only was her vibrato unflatteringly wide but she was also simply out of tune. I have heard her in a number of Strauss roles; this was by some degree her weakest.

Of course, one must try to make the best of what circumstances throw at one. Such is the message of the Prologue. Yet, despite those three truly estimable performances to which I have referred, the sheer enchantment of Ariadne deserved better than it generally received here; its intricate constructivism needs surer hands on the directorial and musical tillers.