Much to Engage the Mind in Hans Neuenfels’ Production of Ariadne auf Naxos

14/03/2017

R. Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists, Staatskapelle Berlin / Eun Sun Kim (conductor). Schillertheater, Berlin, 11.3.2017. (MB)

Cast:
Music Master – Arttu Kataja
Major-Domo – Elisabeth Trissenaar
Lackey – David Oštrek
Officer – Sergiu Saplacan
Composer – Katharina Kammerloher
Tenor, Bacchus – Roberto Saccà
Wig-Maker – Adam Kutny
Zerbinetta – Elena Sancho-Pereg
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Anna Samuil
Dancing Master – Manuel Günther
Naiad – Evelin Novak
Dryad – Natalia Skrycka
Echo – Sónia Grané
Harlequin – Gyula Orendt
Truffaldino – Grigory Shkarupa
Scaramuccio – Linard Vrielink
Brighella – Miloš Bulajić
Puppeteer – JARNOTH

Production:
Hans Neuenfels (director)
Katrin Lea Tag (set designs)
Stefan Bolliger (lighting)
Andrea Schmidt-Futterer (costumes)
Yvonne Gebauer (dramaturgy)

The prospect of a staging of Ariadne auf Naxos from Hans Neuenfels was exciting indeed. His Bayreuth Lohengrin is well-nigh universally acknowledged, usual irreconcilable suspects aside, as a modern classic. Both Mozart stagings I have seen from him – Salzburg’s Così fan tutte, my first, and La finta giardiniera, here in Berlin – have been intelligent and probing. There is, of course, a much lengthier history to his work in spoken theatre and film, as well as his own writing, indeed in opera too, dating back even beyond his celebrated 1980 Aida for Frankfurt, whose landmark treatment of the work’s Orientalism outraged not only those aforementioned usual suspects but, it seems, a good few others aside. What would he do, then, with Strauss, whose twin musical gods were Mozart and Wagner, here in Ariadne, as so often, set in fruitful competition, contradiction, and perhaps reconciliation with each other?

Perhaps I should have known to expect the unexpected, but what I did not really expect was restraint, even conventionality, albeit shorn of a good deal of the theatricality and metatheatricality that lies at the heart of most productions – and indeed of the work itself. Such is largely what we see, or do not see, at least in the Prologue (save for the sudden, brief reappearance at the end, at the back of the stage, of Troupe Zerbinetta’s male members, as it were, replete with enormous strap-on dildos, enthusiastically waved around. I have no idea why in context, but it certainly attracted attention.) There is otherwise little sense of visual provocation; Andrea Schmidt-Futterer’s costumes convey a sense of modernity in its chic, allegedly ‘timeless’ form. Katrin Lea Tag’s set is relatively spare, as in the Opera proper; there is no sense, as has recently been fashionable (for instance, Christof Loy at Covent Garden or Claus Guth in Zurich), of attempting anything with self-reference to its particular location. I am not sure why it was necessary for the Major-Domo to extract money from a cash machine, suddenly revealed in the wall. Maybe it was just underlining a point concerning patronage; maybe it was a passing hint at vulgarity. (Do the super-rich have such things in their houses as amusements, or perhaps as safety deposit boxes?)  I did not especially care for the performance of Frau Neuenfels, Elisabeth Trissenaar, in that role; she is an excellent actress, and was so again here, but her delivery was strangely caricatured, not least in this otherwise straightforward context. The parody here is surely pretty much written in; adding more seems a little like caricaturing the musical caricatures of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Otherwise, all is rather as it ‘should’ be, well directed, well presented, but not especially interesting.

In the Opera, that changes somewhat, yet only somewhat. Another brief baffling moment – to me, at any rate, although perhaps I was being slow – is the arrival and speedy departure of an ecclesiastical procession. Again, the designs are not lavish; it is, after all a desert island. Again, the action is not complicated. There are, however, certain enigmatic, I should say suggestive, touches – and one important intervention. Threads are handed out (by the Composer, if I remember correctly) at the beginning, to Naiad, Dryad, and Echo; they snap, or were never woven together in the first place, suggesting and yet deconstructing the Fate of Wagner’s Norns. A mysterious puppeteer (JARNOCH) wanders on and off, on one occasion bearing Grecian masks (Theseus and Ariadne?), and parading ‘Schicksal’ (destiny) on the back of his T-shirt. His acts open up rather than close down possibilities for reflection: just what a production needs. Zerbinetta tries to instruct Ariadne, but the latter pays heed neither to her song nor to her written slogans.

For it seems that Ariadne has a death-wish, one which, revealingly, perhaps as an Adornian Rettung (‘rescue’) of the work, is fulfilled. She does not join Bacchus, but takes her life, highlighting the contradictions of the final scene, Hofmannsthal’s wish for ‘transformation’ dealt with at least as severely (and perhaps rightly so) as Strauss’s stubbornly materialist peroration. Tragedy is reinstated, as many a composer of opera seria – would like. And the Composer joins Ariadne in her death. Such, after all, is the lot of modernity, after Hegel: art would die and yet we will not, cannot, let it. We need our modernistic fragments, however much they refuse to add up. We certainly do not need what Adorno excoriated as the Happy End, although it is what mere ‘entertainment’ – paid for, because it gains ‘results’ – will give us. If only this might have been read back into the relatively disappointing Prologue.

There was much, then, to engage the mind. What about the ear (insofar as they may be distinguished from one another)? Anna Samuil, alas, offered a crude performance as Ariadne, her constant wide vibrato wearing and her acting ability rudimentary. Roberto Saccà’s Bacchus was better, although workmanlike rather than thrilling. (One cannot always, or even often, have Jonas Kaufmann, I suppose.) Katharina Kammerloher’s palpably sincere Composer was more impressive, although her vowels were sometimes distractingly strange – and she shaded dangerously close towards sentimentality at the end of the Prologue. Elena Sancho-Pereg, however, made for an excellent Zerbinetta. The coloratura held no obvious fears for her; just as important, she presented a more rounded character than one often encounters. Perhaps Ariadne should have listened to her after all. The other roles were all well taken, with a fine sense of company, Arttu Kataja’s Music Master, Gyula Orendt’s Harlequin, and Sergiu Saplacan’s Officer especially pleasing.

Eun Sun Kim’s direction of the orchestra was mostly competent, yet rarely more than that. She made a somewhat vulgar meal, surprisingly so, out of the Composer-Zerbinetta duet, otherwise tended to more of a Kapellmeister’s approach. The Staatskapelle Berlin sounded glorious, though: darker than, say, Vienna or Dresden and all the more intriguing for it, not only as Neuenfels’ staging shifted towards overt tragedy, but all along suggesting an alternative path to that which we ‘knew’. The players’ soloistic prowess was second to none throughout, yet they clearly listened to each other too, lengthy experience of chamber music telling. The musical art of performance, then, lived in the pit even as we witnessed the representation of its death onstage. Sometimes Zerbinetta’s ‘neue Gott’ turns out to be the god we have known all along, transformed.

Mark Berry

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