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

Among Richard Strauss’s operas, it is probably Ariadne auf Naxos the one that gave the composer more trouble to complete. First of all, there was the unpractical idea of having it as the divertissement in Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, what made for one of the longest nights in the theatre in one’s lifetime. Then there was Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s tug of war with the libretto, which the composer felt as obscure and nonsensical, while the librettist insisted that even his servants could follow its neoclassical, proto-psychologic imagery. And finally there was the problem of rewriting it to extricate it from the Molière by devidong a prologue that theoretically would propose the musical motives already developed in the opera inside the opera.

Director Katie Mitchell is right when she affirms that the work in its final form has a flaw: the first part does not go seamlessly in the second. The Composer and Zerbinetta’s duet hints at something that never happens, her quick appearance in the last scene seems like an afterthought, not to mention that the mise-en-abyme feels like a torso if we don’t have something like a final scene, even if it were a relatively short ensemble as in the finale ultimo of Don Giovanni: the tenor is happy he got the last scene, the soprano promises never working with the composer again, but he does not care for he has discovered new possibilities in Zerbinetta’s “talents”. She has probably already set her thoughts on someone else, the richest man in Vienna perhaps. Who knows?

That is exactly what Ms. Mitchell tries to do here – not only we have a glimpse of what happens after the end of the opera, but also we are able to witness what goes on in the audience while it is being performed. The Composer is trying to conduct a score edited in haste and is desperate with the intrusions of the buffo actors. My admiration for the director’s many interesting ideas – most of all, Zerbinetta disguised as a doctor (and later as an intellectual), as one would see in any -etta role, but I couldn’t help rolling my eyes in the highly distracting and very ineffective decision of including the cross dressing lord and lady of the house in the story, interfering with the action in ways that could be described as all the variations of silliness. I will not call it the staging’s worst idea, for there was the fact that members of the “audience” would speak as loudly as they could over Richard Strauss’s music in a way nobody would have in real life, ruining some beautiful and expressive pages of this score. That is the moment when Ms. Mitchell should have followed the advice of a man who understood everything about structure: Mies van der Rohe’s “less is more”.

Until this evening, Jérémie Rhorer was a Mozart conductor with noteworthy sense of rhythm and drama. The fact that his Straussian credentials were unknown to me have an explanation: this is the first time he conducts an opera by Richard Strauss. It is, therefore, more puzzling that in this most Mozartian among the Bavarian composer’s operas Mr. Rhorer’s instincts have proved to be so wrong. As heard  this evening, the score sounded at its most square, unvaried, unclear and devoid of theatricality. Karl Böhm would marvel that Strauss could make a relatively small group of musicians could alternately sound as a the continuo of baroque opera and as a full Romantic orchestra. Not this evening – even when the music demanded impetuosity and richness, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris insisted in dwelling within a very restricted sound palette.

Camilla Nylund started the opera with the wrong foot. The lower tessitura did not flatter her rather colorless middle register (the extreme low notes themselves were actually very good) and her lack of slancio made Es gibt ein Reich sound quite dull. She would fare really better in the final duet, where her long breath and pellucid pianissimo gave an elegant if still cold impression. For a change, she did not need to fear the competition from Olga Pudova’s unsubtle, metallic Zerbinetta. The Russian soprano is not familiar with the style, the German language and what she sang in some moments is not really what Strauss wrote. It has been a while since Roberto Saccà included the part of Bacchus in his repertoire and he still sounds healthy and secure in it, but the voice has become even grainier and more glaring than it used to be. In any case, it was refreshing to hear a voice that could pierce through the orchestra without much ado.

Kate Lindsey’s extra-light mezzo soprano had reserves of colors I did not know. Although the part requires everything she has to offer, she makes little of her own limits. Her singing this evening was secure, expressive and beautiful. Her ease with high mezza voce made her get away with very difficult passages and gather her strengths to the exposed high notes in the end of the prologue (when one was forced to recognize that a little bit more volume would make all the difference in the world). Even sailing through a rocky shore, she still found the opportunity to show off exemplary breath control and let go breath pauses that normally stand between almost every other singer and asphyxia. Brava.

Among minor roles, Huw Montague Randall displayed a firm and warm baritone as the harlequin and Lucie Roche super dark low notes in the part of the dryad sounded really promising.

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The Semperoper’s new staging of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is not limited to what happens on stage. On arriving at the theatre’s foyer, one could see a group of people in tuxedos and long dresses having dinner to the sound of live chamber music. One would discover later that these are the guests to the dinner party in the house of Vienna’s richest man in Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto. As the butler insists to say, the main event in this soirée is going to be the fireworks. As we left the theatre, the usher did not fail to hand out sparklers to all members in the audience. Does that mean that director David Hermann faithfully followed every word written by Hofmannsthal? Even if the action is updated to our days, Mr. Hermann showed unusual care to the libretto. For instance, according to the text, the lord of the house gave clear instructions that the actors in the vaudeville were supposed to “decorate” the depressing sets of the opera, but what one usually sees is Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on stage only when they have to sing. Not here. As asked by their patron, the comedians are practically continuously on stage – and Mr. Hermann really had to use his imagination to make that work. And, well, it did work. The clash of neoclassical and rococo aesthetics as represented by commedia dell’arte and opera seria are in the core of this mise-en-scène’s concept. The problem of a production so observant of the author’s original ideas is that the eventual liberty taken by the director cannot help being at-your-face conspicuous. For instance, the gender-ambiguous Composer or the Bacchus in his ordinary clothes who seems to have transcended the limits of role-playing and acquired some sort of hyperconsciousness that allows him to “operate” the stage à la “Matrix”. It seems that the director at some point decided that he should add some sort of insight to the proceedings, but it did feel rather “added upon” than “built from within”. In any case, this is a beautiful staging with plenty of clever scenic solutions and careful Personenregie – and it could have perfectly done without the “interpretative touch of genius”.

If there is a repertoire in which Christian Thielemann can do no wrong this is Richard Strauss. The kind of orchestral sound this music requires is something that he is naturally able to obtain from an orchestra, especially the one Strauss himself called the Wunderharfe. Tonight, the audience was treated the most exquisite orchestral playing in the market. Mr. Thielemann’s main purpose this evening seemed to be absolute clarity, but not in the sense of “making everything hearable” , but rather in that of revealing the meaning behind every phrase in this score. A deaf person would have left the auditorium knowing the complete structure of thematic relations devised by the Bavarian composer. During the prologue, I could not help thinking this was the Straussian performance of a lifetime, but the opera itself – good as it was – did not reach the same paramount level. Although Mr. Thielemann is one of the most solid conductors of our days, there is something pretty much beyond his reach, and this is “relaxing”. Ariadne auf Naxos will always be a tough cookie, for reconciling the burlesque and the grandiose in the opera will always be a challenge, especially for typically Wagnerian conductors. Although I fully endorse Mr. Thielemann’s idea of making the comedy episode more serious by keeping a more regular beat and a considerate tempo (and a certain fullness of sound), when Ariadne and Bacchus are alone at last, instead of regaining the flexibility shown in the prologue and the even at the first part of the opera, the tendency to make things more serious had already gained too much momentum to be contained. By the end, the impression was rather of ponderousness. Had he been able to boost the volume of his orchestra, this could have somehow worked in a very Siegfried-ian way, but his cast was hanging fire by then and there was no other option but to rein in.

I have always believed that there is some sort of curse involved the title role in this opera. It is almost never marvelously sung, even when a great soprano is indeed cast. For instance, Krassimira Stoyanova was a very good Marschallin in Salzburg, and the idea of g her as Ariadne seemed natural. On paper, her voice is perfect for the role. At first, it was all there: the creamy tone, the floated mezza voce, the low notes, the noble phrasing and even a special attention to the text. But the climax of Es gibt ein Rich already showed an opaque quality to her high notes whenever she sings above mezzo forte. In order to be heard in those moments, she had to employ a great deal of energy, with variable results. The sound has very little squillo these days and her only tool to ride the orchestra was really going full powers. In the difficult final scene, she was just too tired, the tone was gray and she had to adapt what R. Strauss wrote to reach the end of some phrases. That is indeed a pity, for, maybe in a better day, she could be a plausible exponent of this role. Her liability here was made more evident by the vocal opulence of her Bacchus, Stephen Gould at his most powerful and richest toned. This part is on the high side for his voice and I was worried by what he would make of it. He scored many points by producing perfect mezza voce in the high a in Weh, bist du auch solche eine Zauberin?, but started to get pinched until he finally omitted the high b flat* in his final phrase. In spite of that, Mr. Gould sang beautifully and I was glad I could hear him in this role.

Daniela Fally is an extremely light-toned Zerbinetta, rather on the soubrettish side of the soprano spectrum. She is a musicianly and intelligent singer, whose vivid handling of the text in her native language is highlighted by very clear diction, even when things get really high. Her coloratura is clear and her trills are acceptable. As many superlight Zerbinettas, she gets nervous when Strauss takes her above the high c. In this moments, the tone becomes glassy and her breath shorter. Other than this, she offered a charming and spirited performance. She was very well partnered by Rafael Fingerlos’s Harlekin, with more than a splash of Olaf Bär in his light, dulcet baritone. Although Albert Dohmen’s vowels are a bit overdark, he was in very good voice and sang forcefully as the Music Master. There was also a truly euphonious trio of nymphs in Tuuli Takala, Evelin Novak and Simone Schröder. Joseph Dennis and Carlos Osuna were probably the richest-toned pair of tenors ever to appear in Zerbinetta’s troupe – and Alexander Pereira (yes, the Alexander Pereira) was a funny Haushofmeister.

I leave the best for last. As she was in Berlin, Daniela Sindram is a superlative, out-of-this-world Komponist. Her singing of this role is of golden age quality. As she is less famous than she deserved to be, I make a point of making it clear how much I appreciate her singing both here and in Der Rosenkavalier.

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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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