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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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R. Strauss’s “bucolic tragedy” Daphne, written during the Second World War, has seldom been staged and, although some might blame the static libretto with its complex transformation scene at the end, I would rather mention the extremely difficult vocal parts and virtuosic writing for the orchestra. In any case, it is still a challenging story for a stage director and Torsten Fischer must be praised for his imaginative approach to the story that adds unusual depth to the plot without making violence to it.

Although the connection with the young anti-Nazi activist Sophie Scholl seems at first far-fetched, it ultimately pays off in the portrayal of a Daphne who refuses to blend in a world that has lost its innocence. The staging actually opens with the projection a touching quotation from one of her letters in which she praises the beauty of nature in comparison with the ugliness brought about by the work of mankind. The Dyonisian rites are here performed as pro-régime rallies with the deceptive appearance of Apollo as some sort of commanding officer that first promises the glory that Daphne dreams about and ultimately brings destruction by the killing of Leukippos. The closing scene alone is worth the price of the tickets – from her prison cell, Daphne dreams of walking out from it, climbs a long staircase and, by virtue of a long mirror hanging over the stage, we can see her joining her dead friend and all other members of the cast and chorus in a gigantic “human tree” of victims of the war. Has the director imposed his own view on the plot? If we have in mind the days when the opera was written, the idea behind the myth and the fact alone that this concept allows for a far more moving closing to the opera than awkward attempts of the title role’s transformation into a tree (you just have to write the words “Daphne” and “Strauss” on youtube.com to see my point), Torsten Fischer’s production goes far beyond the usual superficiality and narcissism of régietheater and offers far more than a traditional staging could propose. And it does not hurt either that costumes, sets and lighting are beautiful and well-judged.

Although Camilla Nylund’s soprano is a bit unfocused, she sang the impossibly strenuous title-role with poise and sensitiveness. Her warm tonal quality and clean phrasing are aptly Straussian and it is only a pity that exposed dramatic notes lack a brighter edge to shine in the auditorium. Her restrained and dignified acting are also praiseworthy. Ladislav Elgr’s firm and bright tenor proved to be up to the challenge of singing the role of Leukippos and could be said to steal the show, especially because Robert Dean Smith clearly was not in a good day. The role of Apollo is extremely testing and he seems to have an unending supply of high notes in his favor, but the voice lacked color and failed to pierce through. He is not dashing as the role ideally requires either. Christa Mayer seemed at ease with the contralto tessitura of Gaea and sang richly throughout, while Georg Zeppenfeld gave an ideal performance of the role of Peneios. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber took some time to warm – the first scenes lacked clarity and he did not seem to find an ideally transparent orchestral sound while trying to make singers’ lives easier. Fortunately, the tragic half of the story counted with dense sonorities of the Staatskapelle’s legendary strings in ideal balance with singers on stage and with the remaining sections of the orchestra.

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Sometimes I feel that opera stage directors are the loneliest people in the world. They have to be orphan and friendless; otherwise someone would tell them “I know that this idea seems to work IN YOUR MIND, but the truth is…” And yet, no, they go all alone to their pitfalls – except for the audience, who is dragged to the directors’ ordeal without getting, unlike them, a penny for that.

When Jens-Daniel Herzog appeared on stage to take his bow in the end of the performance of Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at the Semperoper, he seemed to be a nice guy, what makes it doubly sad that no-one, absolutely no-one had ever told him “just don’t” when he decided to indulge in some absolutely proven operatic sins, such as staging the overture, reserving loud action for extras while singers and orchestra are trying to make music, devising difficult movements and/or postures in vocally challenging passages or creating an atmosphere on stage in a different mood from the one portrayed by the music. But nothing – absolutely NOTHING – is so hideous as having soloists and chorus members perform cute choreographies while singing. First of all, these people rarely really know how to dance; second, it looks silly; thirdly, it looks silly.

What makes Herzog’s staging doubly frustrating is the impression that this is the flower power version of the Glyndenbourne production, in which the choreographies were meant in the context of Bollywood aesthetics. Here the action is set in Egypt all right, but in the 1940’s. Where the cute steps fit in is a mystery to me – the all-about-decolleté Cleopatra in a Muslim country makes even less sense! But let’s not concentrate on details. Many a misfire in Herzog’s staging is shared by almost every other director who tackles a Handel opera, especially not trusting the power of music and introducing all sort of funny little parallel actions to “entertain” the audience while what seems bo…ring music to them is being played in the background.

All that said, it would be unfair if I gave the impression that Mr. Herzog is the target of what is ranting about the general state of affairs. In this production, the cast seemed to be having fun, acted with conviction and many of the complex movements were actually well executed. I confess I have particularly enjoyed the idea of showing Lidia/Cleopatra during V’adoro, pupille as a crooner in some sort of nightclub, where the solo violinist in Se giulivo is one of those musicians who play for customers trying to entice them to give him some money.

The staging’s flamboyance contrasted to conductor Alessandro de Marchi’s rather inflexible approach. Having an opera house orchestra follow period practices in baroque music is always risky business, and de Marchi succeeded in immerse his musicians in the right stylistic universe. However, this was a compromise one could feel. There was a sense of straight-jacket in the slimmer sound picture of the traditionally lush-toned Staatskapelle Dresden and the fast tempi showed precision without true animation. I do not mean that the performance sagged in any way – it just lacked dramatic conviction. Although it is always good to find some energy in Cornelia and Sesto’s gloomy mourning, a little bit more suppleness would have helped to boost expression in a performance that seemed primarily about getting things rightly done. Although a die-hard purist would be nauseous, for instance,  at some of John Nelson’s performances at the Metropolitan Opera House (I’m particularly referring to the broadcast with Jennifer Larmore, Stephanie Blythe and David Daniels) , at least the ordinary opera-goer would definitely get some thrill out of the proceedings. If you’re playing Bach in a Steinway, it will be useless trying to make it sound like a harpsichord – better make it in the grand manner like Martha Argerich does.

The edition here adopted involved as expected the trimming of the B section of some arias, but this has been judiciously done. Tu la mia stella sei was fortunately preferred to Tutto può donna vezzosa, but the lovely Venere bella (among other numbers) was deleted, while Nireno’s aria has been kept.

Laura Aikin is an experienced Cleopatra, but the years have  robbed the roundness of her top register. It is still an extremely charming voice, but everything around a high g sounds a bit hard and unflowing. And to think that in 1999 she was an amazing Zerbinetta in Sinopoli’s Ariadne auf Naxos in Milan! Let’s hope she was just not in a good day. The rather awkward cadenze written by the conductor (for all soloists) tented to highlight the problem. Her Se pietà was pleasing if not heartfelt and she met with confidence the challenge of Da tempeste, in spite of some shrieking high options.

Casting a high mezzo as Cesare is a helpless idea. It is hardly Anke Vondung’s fault that she seemed a bit out of sorts almost all the time. More generously endowed singers, such as Tatiana Troyanos, experienced the same problems in this role. Nevertheless, this performance made that German mezzo rise in my esteem. She offered more or less fluent coloratura, has good trills, expert messa di voce, phrases tastingly and – if she does not sound heroic at all – her singing of the difficult fioriture in Al lampo dell’armi while performing a difficult stage fight with five extras deserves enthusiastic praise.

Christa Mayer is evidently no specialist in baroque opera, but she diligently adapted her Wagnerian contralto to the circumstances and offered some lovely moments as Cornelia, especially in Son nata a lacrimar. Pity that Janja Vuletic was not at the same level – her Barbarina-like soprano simply does not work properly in this lower tessitura and her wayward breath support involved many stances of unfocused tone and approximative pitch. She is a very good actress, though, and cuts a believably boyish figure on stage. Max Emanuel Cencic’s countertenor is not as rich in the lower reaches as Bejun Mehta’s or David Daniels’, but his firm-toned, vivid singing is very effective in this role, not to mention that some of his forceful high notes are truly exciting. Cristoph Pohl’s strong and flexible bass was ideally cast as Achilla and Christopher Field’s bright and flexible countertenor was finally worth the inclusion of Nireno’s Chi perde un momento.

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