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 condamned 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 this 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.