Richard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Opéra National de Paris – Palais Garnier, December 19 2003

Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Production: Laurent Pelly. Majordomo: Waldemar Kmentt. Music Master: David Wilson-Johnson. Composer: Sophie Koch. Tenor, Bacchus: Jon Villars. Dance Master: Graham Clark. Zerbinetta: Natalie Dessay. Primadonna, Ariadne: Katarina Dalayman. Naiad: Henriette Bonde-Hansen. Dryad: Svetlana Lifar. Echo: Sine Bundgaard. Harlequin: Stéphane Degout. Scaramuccio: Daniel Norman. Truffaldino: Alexander Vinogradov. Brighella: Norbert Ernst. Orchestre de l'Opéra de Paris.

The cast in the current Paris production of Ariadne auf Naxos is excellent; the problem is the director.

In the early 80s, the Opéra Comique’s production of Ariadne ended with a magical coup de théâtre, a spine-tingling surprise. The Opera was set in the oval saloon of a Jugendstil palace, with Ariadne’s desert island in the middle. Bacchus arrived in a plain cape. As the scene moved to its climax, he reversed the cape to reveal glittering, golden embroidery and threw it around himself and Ariadne as they kissed. Slowly, very slowly, as the harps and celesta sparkled away in the orchestra, a vast backdrop, similarly coloured, embroidered and jewelled, was lowered to cover the curving walls. Klimt’s The Kiss. A Kitsch idea on paper, perhaps; but you had to have it, and in the theatre, it worked.

I couldn’t help wishing, on Friday night, we had that gorgeous old production, with its Paul Poiret-style costumes and house guests in fancy dress as opera characters, instead of Laurent Pelly’s new one. Yet Pelly has given us at least two of Paris’s best productions in recent years: Rameau’s Platée at the Palais Garnier and Offenbach’s La Belle Hélène at the Châtelet, already available on DVD (snap them up!). I will quote, here, Francis Carlin writing in The Financial Times:

“His aim was to hinge everything on the composer with the Prologue as his nightmare and the opera as more of the same. David Wilson-Johnson's strong Music Master and Graham Clark's brilliantly incisive Dancing Master make the Prologue a buzz of fine acting. Sophie Koch's Composer brings the house down with passionate, dynamically varied singing. But things go sour after the interval. We move from an Alpine retreat to a building site in sunny Greece. Zappy Zerbinetta and her budget-holiday friends bowl up in a VW van. We don't see why they are there but that's the advantage of the dream-sequence approach: a producer can serve up anything because it doesn't have to make sense. The snag is that Strauss and Hofmannsthal produced a delicious entertainment with rickety foundations and Pelly amplifies its architectural shortcomings. The Prologue and opera are here totally unrelated. The interaction between opera buffa and opera seria has never seemed so awkward […] Worse, with Zerbinetta's retinue in Hawaiian shirts, it all looks like a rehash of Pelly's Belle Hélène with the same now-inevitable jiving movements. For Pelly's first go at a German opera, this is a huge disappointment.”

I can’t put it better, though Carlin omits to point out that, having been in full primadonna drag (in fact, dressed as diva La Castafiore from the Tintin comic strips) in the Prologue, in the opera, Ariadne is a homeless madwoman in rags, living on a mattress in that building site. More Elektra than Ariadne.

All credit goes, then, to the singers. The role of the Composer is of course a gift to any mezzo who can manage it, and Sophie Koch managed it, with a relatively light, bright voice, looking slim, handsome, and dikey in a grey suit. Katarina Dalayman, who I only knew “on Naxos” in that label's Stockholm live recording of Die tote Stadt, has a strong, “rough silk” voice with a touch of the hot potato in the diction. With Jon Villars’ ringing tenor, the final scenes were unsubtle but exciting. He is a giant, not our old friend the short, stout tenor, and for once credible as a god.

“Vivacious Natalie Dessay” (FT again) “is a show-stopping Zerbinetta in bikini and pareo.” Dessay’s voice is fleshing out as she matures and makes plans for Violetta. As I’ve mentioned elsewehere in reviews, it’s a voice which may sound hard and vulgar on disc, but is a thrill in the theatre. The top notes remain amazing, and, a great singing actress, she makes sense of the coloratura passages by relating them to the stage business.

There was a time when the Paris opera orchestra could ruin an evening of Strauss. As a Viennese visitor once said to me at an intermission during Rosenkavalier, “It’s a pity, it’s too hard for them.” They’ve come a long way since then and are quite capable of playing Salome or Elektra. Ariadne is, however, very exposed, and the multiple threads never quite knitted together seamlessly under Pinchas Steinberg. The harps and celesta, though, sparkled beautifully.

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