United Kingdom Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos (Concert performance): Soloists, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor) Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 6.7.2014. (GR)
Prima Donna/Ariadne : Karita Mattila
Zerbinetta: Jane Archibald
Tenor/Bacchus: Roberto Saccà
Composer: Ruxandra Donose
Harlequin: Markus Werba
Scaramuccio : Wynne Evans
Brighella: Paul Schweinester
Truffaldino: Jeremy White
Naiad: Sofia Fomina
Dryad: Karen Cargill
Echo: Kiandra Howarth
Music Master: Sir Thomas Allen
Dancing Master: Ed Lyon
The Major Domo: Christoph Quest
Wig-Maker: Ashley Riches
Officer : David Butt
Lackey : Jihoon Kim
As of the very first Straussian chords from Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, the audience could see that this concert performance of Ariadne auf Naxos was not going to be your normal static presentation with the singers clutching music stands or clinging onto their scores. The opening spectacle of The Major Domo pacing up and down, anxiously looking at his watch, demonstrated that. With less than forty instrumentalists on the large Birmingham stage, there was ample space for the action to proceed, both on the arced raised platform behind them and over the full width to the front. There were no sets, a minimum of costumes, but plenty of movement, making the most of three entry points – rear centre, left and right wings. The production team, currently in the middle of a full operatic run at ROH, were thus eminently able to transpose it into this strictly concert adaptation at Symphony Hall on July 6th 2014; no doubt the director of the current run Christof Loy had much to do with this aspect (although his only acknowledgement in the programme was as the author of the excellent synopsis). Particularly exceptional on the choreographic front was the astute positioning of the three nymphs and the brief unified song and dance routine from the four commedia dell’arte artists. The innocent sexual games involving Zerbinetta and the pert kiss she gave Harlequin to indicate that it was he who would be her next conquest also came across well.
Individually the cast had been well drilled, slightly re-programmed from the routine with which they must by now be familiar at Covent Garden. First to show in this respect in the Prologue was everybody’s favourite Sir Thomas Allen, looking as immaculate as ever in his dress suit as the Music Master and sounding as solid and as assured as always. Another early plus was an impressive cameo role for Jette Parker Young Artist bass Jihoon Kim as the Lackey; he has a beautiful resonant tone and is one to watch!
But the Prologue belonged toRuxandra Donose as the Composer; Donose (who I fondly remember for a couple of Marguerites in Berlioz’ Damnation hereat Symphony Hall) was in superb form, confirmed by the bravos at the applause leading to the interval. The trouser-role suited the Romanian to a glove: her indignation that someone could have the audacity to present a piece of vaudeville ‘nach meiner opera! (after my opera!)’ was priceless. This was in utter contrast to the philosophy behind her Sie hält ihn für den Todsgott! (She mistakes him for the God of Death). These two numbers well illustrated the musical charms of Strauss, able to switch moods between bars. Vocally she seemed to have the power of an untapped volcano, hot-bloodedness yet capable of being quenched by an enticing approach from the right quarter. In Loy’s production she maintained her distance from Zerbinetta (some four yards) which made their potential attraction all the more electric! Jane Archibald was efficient enough as Zerbinetta telling the Composer that it was not the end of the world, beginning to reveal her inner self in Ein Augenblick ist wenig (A moment is nothing); although this led to a distinct moment of empathy between them, I thought this seductress lacked the coquettish element the role demands.
The beginning of the Opera section contains some of my favourite Straus music and how wonderfully well the front row of the strings, superbly led throughout by Vasko Vassilev, played it. Singled out first by Pappano at the final curtain, their musicianship and timbre established a completely different atmosphere for the setting of Ariadne’s cave. Ever generous to his players and accommodating to his soloists, Pappano mastered the complex score; Strauss, himself a great conductor, said ‘if you sweat while you’re conducting, you’re not conducting in the right way. You just have to let work speak’. With his low arm action, Pappano did just that, although bouncing along with the score as the mood dictated. The orchestra shone, both together as they ensured ultra-smooth transitions between the various sections, and as individuals highlighting the leitmotivs associated with the various characters.
The three nymphs held the trials and tribulations of Ariadne together. They entered rear centre, first Karen Cargill as Dryad and Sofia Fomina as Naiad, to be joined by Kiandra Howarth as Echo. I thought Aussie Howarth, another Jette Parker Young Artist, deserves special mention for her delightful contribution, achieving the appropriate vagueness to her character. Overall the nymphs emanated an ethereal aura, in keeping with their function. This included their angelic guardianship role over Ariadne whilst also expressing her innermost thoughts: her states of tenderness, hatred, traumatism and bliss all emerged. One celestial highlight was their Töne, töne, süsse Stimme (Sing on, sing on, sweet God) one of Strauss’ best loved tunes. Not that Mattila didn’t display these emotions as well, if not better; she was stunning, a prima donna in every sense. Although there was no semblance of a cave, with head slightly bowed, she was a stationary sleepwalker, abandoned by Theseus. How could this hero reward the woman who saved him from Crete and the Minotaur with such a fate? The languor of the situation was made absolute by the silvery harps of Lucy Wakeford and Hugo Webb. I wondered whether Mattila might have donned a shawl/mantle, as referred to in the magnificent libretto of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, but it was superfluous. Her bearing said it all. Mattila was the best Ariadne I have seen and heard, she was Ariadne. When occupying centre stage, which was for considerable periods, she exuded class and presence. There was no need for Pappano to hold back his players whilst she was singing; she effortlessly rose above them with passion and quality – and over the whole register required of her. When she was longing to meet with death, in Wo war ich? Tot? (Where was I? Dead?) I was on the edge of my seat! When she first hears the voice of Bacchus, there was no turn of the head at this double mistake in identity; her catatonic state was so intense it took a while to break it – a nice touch in direction I thought as liberation was still someway off. Comparable to the great Wagnerian ones, the love duet between Mattila and Roberto Saccà as Bacchus, was as wunderbar as the lines of Hofmannsthal. Indeed Saccà, albeit in a lesser role, was as good as Mattila, his heldentenor delivery both forceful and true. One production disaster was thankfully averted: as he made his way from his rear centre entry to front central stage, he narrowly avoided the re-emergence of a percussionist, a regrettable disturbance to the tension in the drama.
It does seem strange to superimpose opera seria alongside opera buffa, but this is what Vienna’s richest man demanded; the fireworks had been paid for from nine o’clock. But when Zerbinetta and her quartet of fanciers interrupted Ariadne’s plight, they provided their own fireworks. The obbligato piano accompaniment of Christopher Willis introduced Zerbinetta’s glorious solo Grossmächtige Prinzessin (Gracious princess) addressed to Ariadne, whose indifference was emphasised by Mattila’s absence. Archibald showed she had a sound top, agile coloratura and some effortless legato; her staying power was also much in evidence, but she did not turn me on, neither flirtatious nor kittenish in her concert frock. Nevertheless she grabbed the attention of her comrades and got some generous applause.
The production runs at Covent Garden until July 13th