Poor Staging Spoils Ariadne auf Naxos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Vladimir Jurowski (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, 18.5.2013 (MB)

Music-Master – Sir Thomas Allen
Major-Domo – William Relton
Lackey – Frederick Long
Officer – Stuart Jackson
Composer – Kate Lindsey
Tenor. Bacchus – Sergey Skorokhodov
Wigmaker – Michael Wallace
Zerbinetta – Laura Claycomb
Prima Donna, Ariadne – Soile Isokoski
Dancing Master – Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke
Pianist – Gary Matthewman
Naiad – Ana Maria Labin
Dryad – Adriana Di Paola
Echo – Gabriela Iştoc
Harlequin – Dmitri Vargin
Scaramuccio – James Kryshak
Truffaldino – Torben Jürgens
Brighella – Andrew Stenson

Katharina Thoma (director)
Julia Müer (set designs)
Irina Bartels (costumes)
Olaf Winter (lighting)
Lucy Burge (movement)

Katharina Thoma’s Glyndebourne debut had been heavily publicised. Sad to say, not only does her production of Ariadne auf Naxos fail to live up to any expectations that might have been engendered; it fails dismally to live up to Strauss and Hofmannsthal, indeed even so much as not to engage with them. Audience members who would apparently erupt into uproarious laughter when someone, anyone, so much as walked onstage seemed delighted, but there was more sign of the artwork we know, love, and desperately wished to have interrogated in the miserably paraphrased surtitles (Is it that difficult to offer a reasonable translation?) than on the Glyndebourne stage, at least during the Opera proper.

The 1940s seem almost to be de rigueur for a certain breed of opera directors at the moment; this staging follows in the dubious footsteps of David McVicar’s not entirely dissimilar Médée for ENO. A pandering desire to ‘entertain’ – ironically here, given the concerns of the Prologue, though the irony seems entirely accidental – replaces genuine dramatic, or indeed almost any other variety of, engagement. And yet, of course, Zerbinetta does not appeal to the lowest common denominator; that she both amuses and touches is owed to an expected level of Kultur on the part of the audience. Insofar as what she offers is ‘low’ culture, and that is a considerable ‘insofar’, that only has meaning in terms of contrast with its ‘high’, seria antipode – or cousin. Here, we simply have her reduced to a ‘mad’ person, straitjacketed in a wartime hospital, who, tedious ‘joke’ of tedious ‘jokes’, sings some of her high notes whilst having an orgasm induced by a visitor. I am not sure what is more offensive: the transformation of mental illness, presumably a product of wartime, into fodder for laughter, the refusal so much as to listen to the text (and no, the orgasm does not betoken serious study of the score), or the fact that so many seemed to respond so positively to Carry on Ariadne. Naiad, Dryad, and Echo are nurses, whose every shaking of a sheet elicited helpless guffaws from that vocal section of the audience.

A still greater indignity suffered by the work comes at the end when Ariadne, reuinited with her fighter pilot Theseus, has him land himself on top of her behind a curtain. It was difficult to decide whether such prudishness were preferable to a more full-frontal vision; either path would simply have been embarrassing in context – or rather, weirdly out of context. Hoffmansthal’s concern with transformative myth receives not so much as a nod, but then nor does the transformative power of Strauss’s music. Goodness knows what the Composer has been doing, wandering around the Opera, not unreasonably lost; to start with I thought he was a doctor, then a patient, but he really seemed to be there to give the false impression that what we see is somehow connected with the Prologue.

For that is the greatest problem of all with this staging, bafflingly so, since one would have thought that, whatever Konzept or none, it would have been pretty straightforward to get right. Much of the Prologue is presented reasonably enough: no particular insight is gained, but it does not jar especially with what we are seeing and hearing. (Many audience members appeared to be doing neither, instead reading the shoddy titles and responding accordingly, that is when they were not simply chattering to each other. Stony glances had no effect whatsoever upon them.) The setting is said to evoke the Glyndebourne of the period, that is of the arbitrarily selected early 1940s, though I am not sure one would have known that without being told. But things happen pretty much as they should; rather in the sense of an ultra-conservative staging, one gleans little but has ‘the story told’. (Christof Loy, as his wilful, equally un-engaging Salzburg Frau ohne Schatten shows, is not necessarily the most sympathetic director of Strauss, yet he engages with the Royal Opera House in a considerably more revealing version of the site-specific approach in his staging of Ariadne.) Then suddenly, at the close of the Opera, the melodrama of an air attack bursts upon the scene. Some people, apparently, ‘just loved’ the ensuing fire – an effect quite without cause, to misquote Wagner on Meyerbeer. For the rest of us, it seemed more akin to a desperate attempt to ‘do’ something with or to the work, given that for some unspecified reason the richness of Strauss and Hofmannsthal was not nearly enough for Katharina Thoma.

But far worse is to come, for any idea of the Opera as a staging suggested in the Prologue appears to have been thrown out of the window. There really is no connection between the two sections of the work. Instead one has the house transformed into a wartime hospital, in which for some reason Ariadne awaits the return of her aforementioned fighter pilot. The very essence of the work, not just its delicious satirising of responses to ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, but its metatheatrical probing of opera as a performative art, has simply been passed over. Thoma comments in a programme interview, ‘But sometimes when I leave the theatre and see the news, and there are catastrophes, think, what have I been worrying about? There are more important matters in the world.’ Unfortunately, the æstheticism of the work and its creators is not so much undercut as rejected in favour of uninvolving incoherence.

Musical performances were better, though I suspect – and hope – they will improve as the run proceeds. Vladimir Jurowski had the excellent LPO on a tight leash – often too tight, harrying the score rather than giving it time to speak. Strauss of all composers does not need to be sentimentalised, but, despite certain kinship or rather pre-emption, this is not Stravinskian neo-Classicism. A half-way house, akin to Busoni, would be perfectly justifiable, intriguing even; however, for much of the time one desperately wanted to ask the conductor just to calm down a little – perhaps more than a little. The Opera fared somewhat better than the Prologue in that respect, though its musical course did not come across, as it should, as if in a single, long breath. Strauss may be an ambivalent Wagnerian here, but a Wagnerian he remains, especially in that requirement for understanding and communication of the melos.

Although the voice is not what it was, Thomas Allen still imparted to the Music Master a theatrical authority so evidently lacking in the stage direction; Wolfgang Ablinger-Speerhacke provided an effective foil as Dancing Master, though he was perhaps inclined to overact. Of the principal characters, Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta was by some distance the most successful. Notwithstanding an unfortunate passage of extremely stray intonation during her big aria, she otherwise managed her coloratura very well, and acted the part in as lively and sympathetic fashion as the staging would permit. Soile Isokoski’s Ariadne improved as the Opera progressed, her music before ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ having suffered from severe inability to sustain, let alone, to float a Straussian phrase. Yet, though matters improved in that respect, hers was not an involving portrayal. (Much of the fault may of course have been the director’s, but not all of it.) Sergey Skorokhodov experienced technical difficulties as Bacchus – one can readily forgive some of them, given Strauss’s cruel writing – but also managed on occasion to display greater mettle; his is certainly a performance I can imagine becoming more impressive on subsequent evenings. Kate Lindsey, though she threw herself commendably into the role of the Composer on stage, disappointed vocally; the voice lacked any of the richness, even vocal variegation, one longs for in the role, however unfair it may be to hark back to Irmgard Seefried. Smaller roles were generally well taken, offering a properly ‘Glyndebourne’ sense of theatrical company; Dmitri Vargin (Harlequin) is a singer whose future we might be well advised to watch.

Yet, despite the wonderful surroundings and some more than creditable music-making, the evening was sorely let down by Thoma’s staging. It offers neither ‘fidelity’, whatever that slippery concept might mean, nor the courage to try something new and to pursue its conclusions; the incoherence is its ultimate problem. Where the work presents a myriad of possibilities, the production closes them down, without offering anything satisfying in their stead. And if that makes me of the Composer’s party, so be it. Ultimately, we all know that, though Strauss plays his games of masks at least as cleverly here as anywhere else, the moment when they drop, when we hear his voice, is the Composer’s ‘Musik ist eine heilige Kunst…’. All of us, it would seem, except Thoma.

Mark Berry

Glyndebourne Festival Opera will continue with Falstaff, to be reviewed for this site by Jim Pritchard. Click here for Margarida Mota-Bull’s interview with General Director, David Pickard.