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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos’

The more I think about the Deutsche Oper’s marketing strategy for this concert performance of R. Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, the less I like it. To say the truth, I haven’t resisted its appeal: the title role is usually poorly sung and the opportunity to hear the leading Straussian soprano of our days in it was beyond my powers of resistance. I did take in consideration the fact that Anja Harteros is very close to become the world’s most cancellation-prone singer (pop music included), but I clung to the idea that it was ONLY ONE CONCERT PERFORMANCE and that she would only disappoint her admirers in these circumstances if she were on the brink of death. This line of reasoning generally leads to an impression of delusion, so let us speak about the fact that the city of Berlin is covered with posters of Anja Harteros, as if all one needs to perform Ariadne auf Naxos were a prima donna. I don’t remember anyone mentioning the other singers: you would have to go to the website and press “Besetzung” to discover that. Then, the apparent raison d’être of this evening is announced indisposed one week before the concert. E-mails have been sent: sorry, folks, no Anja Harteros for you. The last time I received a communication like that from the Deutsche Opera, Angela Gheorghiu (who else?) had a similar indisposition, but a 10 EUR bonus was offered as consolation. Anyway, if the whole point of this evening was having a famous singer in the leading role, why exactly wasn’t she replaced by another famous singer? I happen to know who Meagan Miller is, but the Deutsche Oper seemed unsure about her fame: a text explaining who she is was attached to the cancellation note.  In any case, it is not always possible to find a world-class diva in short notice, but then I understand that you should find an unknown name with tremendous talent so that the audience develop the notion that they have witnessed the birth of a star, such as when an unknown Astrid Varnay replaced Lotte Lehmann, or an unknown Montserrat Caballé replaced Marilyn Horne or an unknown Margaret Price replaced Teresa Berganza.

As it is, Meagan Miller is a very courageous woman. Her task this evening was extremely ingrate, and I’ve prepared myself to have an open mind about it, all the more because Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble opera, with three important soprano roles, one challenging tenor role and a series of interesting shorter characters. It also requires a very good orchestra and a conductor with a very flexible beat and sense of tonal coloring. And I am glad I have done that effort. I have seen Ms. Miller as Elisabeth and Marietta (Die tote Stadt) and wasn’t truly beguiled by the mushy vocal production, the gustiness and the instability. This evening, however, I could see the artist behind the singer: she showed clear diction, real understand of the text and dramatic situations and proved to be aware of the demands of Straussian singing. In the beginning of the opera (i.e, after the intermission), the whole venture seemed to be something like c+ for effort. The tremulousness disfigured many key phrases, the middle register had no color and she had to adopt the “Maria Reining” alternative for the neverending beginning of Ein Schönes war. And yet she was entirely absorbed by the predicament of Ariadne, with complete understanding of the shifts of mood and very alert to the right inflections to the text – and the very difficult low notes were adeptly dispatched. Once she reached Es gibt ein Reich, the voice began to acquire a creamier, more luminous quality and her mezza voce started to develop from the level of acceptability to that of truly expressive beauty. Exemplary phrases would alternate with some wobbly, curdled-toned ones, but from Gibt es kein Hinüber? to the end her singing left nothing to be desired. In conclusion, although Meagan Miller’s performance has plenty of room for development, she tackled some very difficult passages in the grand manner and never failed in commitment. The elements for an important Straussian voice are there, but, if she wants to be more than the replacement of a Straussian diva, she must first round off many sharp angles. It would be a pity if she didn’t try.

Regardless of who was Ariadne, Daniela Sindram sang the role of the Composer. And that could be the raison d’être of this concert. This was superb Straussian singing and definitely one of the best accounts of this part that I have heard live or in recordings. I am really happy I was able to listen to it. Generally, it is the Zerbinetta the singer who gets more attention in a performance of this opera. I am afraid that this was not the case this evening. Susanne Elmark has a lovely personality and her high notes are not metallic as one would expect in this role, but the voice lacks substance, tonal variety and, if she tackles some of the trills commendably, her coloratura is unacceptably imprecise.  Stefan Vinke’s tenor has more than a patch of nasality and many notes are finished in an abrupt manner, and yet he sang the part surprisingly easily and cleanly, flashing some very powerful acuti now and then.

I never cease to admire the level of quality of the ensemble of the Deutsche Oper.  This evening, all roles were taken not only by great voices, but also by artists of great sophistication. The three nymphs were ideally cast with the lovely-toned Siobhan Stagg, the crystal-clear Elena Tsallagova and the truly rich-toned Ronnita Miller, whose mezzo has a welcome Grace Bumbry-ish quality and some very dark low notes. Thomas Blondelle and Markus Brück offered forceful and spirited performances as the Dance Master and the Music Teacher. Carlton Ford was a strong, firm-toned Harlequin, ideally partnered by Jörg Schörner, Paul Kaufmann and a phenomenal Tobias Kehrer. Franz Mazura was an endearing and terrific piece of casting as the Haushofmeister.

Ulf Schirmer gave his cast all the time of the world in an unhurried performance without much profile. Only by the end of the opera, the proceedings gained momentum, but by then his tenor had gotten used to the lack of forward movement and took some time to adjust. I don’t know if the effect of having brass and percussion downstage is to blame, but the strings were on the recessed side throughout and the end of the opera could be described as rather noisy. The lack of an ideal balance robbed many important passages of the necessary clarity. If this performance finally hit home, it was rather by the fact that the conductor allowed individual personalities to shine through rather than led the way himself.

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R. Strauss’s experimental opera Ariadne auf Naxos’s complex creation is only an evidence of how difficult it is to encompass all the contrasting aspects of this work. And I am not speaking of the libretto – but of the many musical universes visited by the composer: operetta, Wagner, Italian opera, Strauss’s own symphonic language. He did not make it easy for singers either – but he had artists like Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Margarethe Siems at his disposal. It is no wonder that the opera soon developed a tradition of stellar names identified with its leading roles. One speaks of Lisa della Casa’s, Gundula Janowitz’s, Jessye Norman’s Ariadne, of Rita Streich’s, Edita Gruberova’s Zerbinetta, Irmgard Seefried’s, Tatiana Troyanos’s Komponist, Rudolf Schock’s, Jess Thomas’s, James King’s Bacchus with some sort of awe. What I am trying to say is: thank God, the audience has been spoiled by the imprint of legendary singers in these roles – and the world’s most important opera houses generally try to cast performances of Ariadne auf Naxos accordingly. The Deutsche Oper could have done the same – but unfortunately it did not. And one cannot help but feeling disappointed. I know there were lots of people shouting bravo and repeated curtain calls, but let’s be frank: a great deal of the audience did not even know when one should applaud Zerbinetta after her aria… I am not trying to be snob – I am pleased to see that many are willing to give Richard Strauss a chance and all I can tell them: get any one of Karl Böhm’s recordings and you’ll REALLY see how much better this can be.

I have to make a proviso in what regard Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. She was announced ill, but sang nonetheless. The voice did sound as if she really had a bad cold (opaque and very restricted in volume) – so I’ll refrain from making comments. I will have to see her again to say something. I know Gruberova’s farewell to the role (at the age of 63) could not have showed her at her best, but once one sampled the sheer radiance and volume of that voice in that role, one is condemned to eternal disappointment after that.

I could have copy-pasted my comment on Michaela Kaune’s Ariadne from my previous writing about her: it has become some sort of sad experience to me. This is a singer who has all the right instincts about what she has to sing, but sabotaged by poor schooling it is always more about intentions than results. Although she had a high quote of false entries, unreliable intonation and even a note a bit lower than the one written by Strauss, this was nonetheless the best performance I have heard from her. She found a plausible solution for the very low notes, has a beautiful tonal quality and – again – knows Straussian style. But – and this is a big “but” – her high register is alarmingly unfocused, hollow-toned, un-legato-ish. It seems as if there were a very good singer up to a high e or f and than a clueless one above that note. After some while, the lack of focus prevailed and by the end, even the nymphs off-stage were covering her onstage. I hate to sound mean – but it is such a pity to witness a beautiful voice and natural musicianship wasted like that.

Ruxandra Donose’s composer did not fare really better – her mezzo always had a pleasant touch of smokiness, but now it is all about smokiness. She lacked tone, her low notes did not pierce through, her high notes were effortful and unconnected to the rest of the voice and she could not produce softer dynamics when required. Again, it was obvious that she knows how this part should sound and displayed very good diction and ease with the declamatory writing, but that is just the beginning.

With his round, free top notes, Roberto Saccà cannot help but being a convincing Bacchus. It is not the most beautiful voice of the world, but he clearly has the measure of this role and offered this evening’s best singing. The minor roles, on the other hand, have been quite well cast – a resonant, congenial Musiklehrer from Lenus Carlson, a fruity-toned Dryade from Katarina Bradic, a not entirely dulcet but awesome Harlekin from Simon Pauly, to name just a few.

This performance’s coup-de-grâce, however, was Jacques Lacombe’s awkward conducting. I don’t have a very good ear, but I found the strings in the opera’s “overture” poorly tuned. To make things worse, they produced a metallic, unvelvety sound throughout. Clarity did not make its entry this evening – it all sounded noisy, imprecise, unclear and reticent. For a while, Ariadne auf Naxos was my favourite opera by R. Strauss and it never ceased to move me. This evening, I kept my eyes on my watch.

Thank God Robert Carsen’s ingenuous production is unpretentious, efficient and entertaining for 75% of the opera. The idea of opening the auditorium to a rehearsal on stage and keeping the lights on while the prologue starts makes the mise-en-abyme of Hofmannsthal’s libretto comes strongly to the fore (and Matthias Bundschuh’s Haushofmeister was excellent). His handling of the comedy troupe is hilarious (wonderful acting from all involved, including Jane Archibald’s sexy Zerbinetta), but it seems he takes too much Zerbinetta’s point-of-view. Once she leaves the stage, ideas start to run short and the closing scene looks like school theatre.

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Still in Straussian mood, I have just added a review of the Zürich Opernhaus’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos on DVD to the discography on re: opera. Although Claus Guth’s régie has its interesting ides, you can really ask yourself Was bleibt von Ariadne? when you see her in a restaurant drugging herself with sleeping pills and taking pictures with a digital camera from Zerbinetta and her troupe…

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