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Posts Tagged ‘R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos’

Christian Stückl’s production of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos was first seen in the Staatsoper Hamburg last year, with Anne Schwanewilms and Johann Botha in the leading roles. It is not a particularly visually striking production (rather on the kitsch side), but cleverly conceived and showing very clear Personenregie. Athough the director says he finds Hofmannsthal incapable of being truly funny, he succeeded in making it entertaining without indulging in slapstick and in making it touching but not very schmaltzy. His intent in relating the tragic and comic aspects (and the prologue and the opera) of the work proved to be organic and dramatically effective. Only the role of Bacchus deserved a little bit more profile (I know, there is little to work with, but…).

Conductor Axel Kober likes his Strauss grand and glamorous, sometimes at the expense of his singers’ comfort. One would often feel – especially during the prologue – that a lighter and clearer sound would have made all the difference of the world. Richard Strauss himself praised Lotte Lehmann’s freedom with tempo – she was the first singer to appear in the role of the Komponist – and when one listens to the 1944 live recording from Vienna (the composer celebrating his 80th birthday in the audience), one can hear how Dr. Böhm is responsive to Maria Reining’s fluidity with tempo. That is a lesson Maestro Kober still has to learn – he rushed forward his Komponist and Ariadne, lag behind his Bacchus and made a mess of the “buffo” passages, desperately lacking clarity and a light touch. The Bacchus/Ariadne scene finally worked very well – the rich orchestral sound, the way the conductor let the music breathe, everything concurred to the right atmosphere of sensuousness and elegance.

Replacing Katja Pieweck in the last minute, Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) proved to be a very alert actress. I would have never said that she did not have the same level of rehearsing of her colleagues. The part lies on the heavy side for her voice, though. There are moments of poor legato or dubious intonations and the tonal quality is sometimes spongy. She could be nonetheless quite compelling in key moments, especially in what regards producing floating mezza voce or adding a personal touch when the music requires more than generical involvement. Although Maria Markina is billed as a mezzo soprano, I’ve discovered that only when I googled her. Nothing in what I’ve head this evening sounded remotely near to a mezzo sound. The voice is extremely bright, not particularly rich in low and medium register and very powerful in its high register. I was going to write that, for a soprano, she should be a little bit readier to try softer dynamics in some key moments in the role of the Composer, but, well, mezzos in this role usually feel uncomfortable with those passages anyway. In any case, it is a very exciting if not very individual voice, the kind one expects to hear in German dramatic soprano repertoire. Olga Peretyatko is ideally cast as Zerbinetta – her high register is extremely pleasant, round, creamy and easy, her coloratura is impressively accurate, she has very long breath and sings with great joie de chant. Although her German is occasionally accented (extra vowels after consonants in particular), she handles the text expertly and made some very interesting turns of phrase. I don’t think she has today any rival in this role. I was surprised to hear how fresh-toned Peter Seiffert (Bacchus) sounded this evening, producing the kind of lyricism and spontaneity he rarely shows in the heavier repertoire he has preferred lately. Some exposed acuti did sound effortful, but these notes sound so with almost every tenor. Minor roles were extremely well cast – Franz Grundheber handles his part of the Musiklehrer with the talents of a diseur, Christoph Pohl strong and warm-toned as the Harlequin, Jun-Sang Han unfazed by the high tessitura of Brighella, Ida Aldrian light and dark-toned as Dryad, just to mention some names.

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In an age when opera stagings are permanently updated and discarded, the fact that Filippo Sanjust’s staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is still in use after 33 years is something of an archeological experience. For many a Straussian, it may feel like some sort of operatic eucharist- the recurrent resurrection of the mythic production on video featuring Karl Böhm’s conducting with Gundula Janowiz and René Kollo.

Those 30 years have been kind on the production, the unpretentious classical aesthetics of which are more or less immune to the change of fashion. The three decades have also been rather kind on its Zerbinetta too. But they are very much part of her performance now. Edita Gruberová’s stardom has begun in this very production in the Wiener Staatsoper back in 1976, when Böhm declared her the absolute Zerbinetta. She dazzled audiences for years in this role with the instrumental accuracy of her fioriture and her intelligent and sensitive interpretation. Now at 63, Gruberová cannot compete with her former self. First, the standard is too high. Then there are moments of incertain intonation, some excursions above high c are uncomfortable, her low register has become even less reliable. But Gruberová does not seem ashamed of her seniority. Although the tonal quality remains crystal-clear and her roulades, scales and staccato are still impressive, her Zerbinetta is clearly not a young woman, but rather a veteran seductress who can now and then still charm the occasional suitor. It is an evidence of the Slovak soprano’s rare artistry the way she transforms what could be a handicap in the special feature of her performance. The day when she says her farewell to Zerbinetta, we will have to wait long before we hear the role sung again with such spirit and Echtheit.

Adrianne Pieczonka’s big creamy lyric soprano is tailor-made for the role of Ariadne; she is certainly the best I have heard in a long while. That said, I cannot really class her among the great exponents of this part. Along  moments of surpassingly beautiful singing, there were too many examples of clumsy management of breath support. As a result, she forced many high notes, had her shallow-toned episodes, opted for odd Luftpausen and misfired a couple of pianissimi.

I can only understand that Michelle Breedt was not in a god day. Her voice did not really carry in the auditorium, the low register was not funcional and the ascents to high notes extremely strenuous. Her indisposition seemed to increase during the performance – and she only ended it out of sheer willpower. Although I dislike the overephatic non-legato-ish approach, one must acknowledge that she is a very convincing stage actress with illuminating word-pointing and imagination. I hope to see her Composer under better circumstances.

I have read a great deal about Lance Ryan and was extremely curious to hear him. I cannot deny, though, that the first impression was not really positive. His voice has an open raw nasal tonal quality that is the opposite of pleasing and the volume is not as generous as the Heldentenor repertoire might require. On the other hand, his vocal health and expert breath support are impressive. I have never, live or in recordings, heard a Bacchus who could sing those dangerously high-lying phrases with such ease. His ability to sing long stretches on the breath is truly amazing.

Ulf Schirmer is an experienced Straussian who knows how to balance vertical clarity with rich sonorities. The house band ‘s long history with this music is evident in the crystalline, ductile orchestral sound and the way the “theatrical” effects in the score were perfectly handled. Nevertheless, I have the impression that the performance was under-rehearsed. Ensemble was not truly polished and, with the exception of the leading tenor, the other main roles (including the Hausmeister) suffered from lapses of memory.

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