Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Théâtre des Champs Elysées, Paris, Monday October 12 2015

Conductor: Kirill Petrenko. Ariadne/Prima Donna: Amber Wagner. Bacchus/Tenor: Jonas Kaufmann. Zerbinetta: Brenda Rae. Composer: Alice Coote. Music Master: Markus Eiche. Lackey: Christian Rieger. Brighella: Matthew Grills. Dancing Master: Kevin Conners. Harlequin: Elliot Madore. Major-Domo: Johannes Klama. Scaramuccio: Dean Power. Truffaldino: Tareq Nazmi. Officer: Petr Nekoranec. Wigmaker: John Carpenter. Naiad: Eri Nakamura. Dryad: Okka von der Damerau. Echo: Anna Virovlansky. Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

I hinted, in my report on Saturday’s Theodora, that it might have been better without the distractions of the bland production. I don’t know if we should call last night‘s Ariadne auf Naxos a concert performance or a semi-staged one. There were no sets or costumes and the orchestra was on-stage; but the singers, in evening dress, had no chairs or stands, and acted their parts out, all of them, with gusto. It was so successful, so wildly applauded it had me thinking back over the years to other successfully un-staged operas, the most memorable of all being a white-hot Elektra, in the same theatre in 1984, when Leonie Rysanek, Maureen Forrester and Ute Vinzing went at it hammer and tongs, bawling each other out in evening gowns, big hair and big jewels. That one is (or was) available on CD, by the way – and can be found online. The uncomfortable fact is – and of course I’m not the first to raise the point - that these “dramatic oratorio” opera performances are often more satisfactory than productions with sets and costumes and concepts you may or may not go along with. You can see and hear the singers better, and focus more tightly on the music and drama. Discuss.

Amber Wagner must be thanking Anja Harteros for dropping out of this gig. Not only did she get the chance to sing Ariadne opposite one of today’s best and best-looking tenors; she also scored a huge hit with the potentially awkward Parisians, who roared their approval. Ariadne sits, or at any rate, in the opera per se, starts low for sopranos. Not even the wonderful Lisa Della Casa sounds comfortable grubbing around down there. Amber Wagner has, fortunately, a really gorgeous lower range, with all the notes properly produced and in tune (including “Totenreich”) and a very, very nice husky, smoky undertone that she carries up with her almost to the very top (to be candid, I wondered if she's really a soprano and not a mezzo with a wide range). She makes good use of varied dynamics, and soars wonderfully when Strauss requires it – and of course, he often does. My neighbour was spellbound; and as I said, the audience roared. I would love to hear her in more Strauss. As Helena, for example (and preferably in the same kind of semi-staging, Helena being what it is).

And if she sang Helena, Brenda Rae would be more than welcome as Aithra. Such a relief to hear a Zerbinetta who has more body to her voice than a soubrette or nightingale (or pipsqueak). Brenda Rae’s sound is what’s often called “creamy” – for a lyric, coloratura soprano, relatively luscious. Yet she produces it naturally, almost as if speaking; and, like Ann Hallenberg in a different repertoire, rattling off Graun as if shelling peas, she makes it sound easy and looks as though she’s enjoying every second. Her “Großmächtige Prinzessin” brought the evening to a halt for some time.

Despite a cold, Jonas Kaufmann was the most convincing Bacchus I've ever had the good fortune to witness. He's often criticised for being too dark for his roles; but he was a very welcome change from the brighter kind of Heldentenor, whose purple-faced, near-apoplectic Bacchus tends to be nerve-racking: you never know when he will split or fluff a top note, or simply explode. A voice like Kaufmann's makes more sense of this famously thankless part. He forged through it, defeated by that cold only in the final bars, when his voice unfortunately caved in.

Alice Coote had my neighbour muttering "Quelle énergie, quelle énergie !" at the interval, and I knew exactly what he meant. The part is undeniably a gift to any mezzo with the energy and oomph to tackle it, and Coote, her voice perhaps brighter than the usual Composer, really threw herself into it, a thrilling performance with only one tiny and irrelevant accident.

Nearly all the casting was brilliant. I'll put in special mentions for Markus Eiche - really outstanding; Kevin Conners; and the wonderfully audible Okka von der Damerau, who, if not already a Valkyrie will surely soon become one (1). And the Bayerisches Staatsorchester under Petrenko was just the kind of orchestra I like: incisive and accurate, every detail (even in the trickiest meandering passages e.g. at the start of the Opera) legible, in place and in tune. Petrenko's tempi were brisk-ish throughout: no wallowing: the pulse under "Es gibt ein Reich" pulsated, it wasn't the bass-line to a dirge; and the three girls frolicked (vocally speaking) rather than lolling around, as they sometimes do. So we were out in time to get to the Turks' for dinner.

Here, Maestro Wenarto sings Zerbinetta.

(1) The IMG Artists website confirms this: "Other highlights this season include her debuts with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra singing Bruckner's Te Deum under the baton of Riccardo Muti and with the Hong Kong Philharmonic singing Grimgerde in Wagner´s Die Walküre under Jaap van Zweden".


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