In Staatsoper Ariadne, Frothy Staging and Uneven Thielemann

AustriaAustria Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos. Soloists, Christian Thielemann (conductor), Orchestra of the Wiener Staatsoper. Wiener Staatsoper, Vienna. 21.10.2014 (SS)

Johan Botha (Bacchus). Image: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Johan Botha (Bacchus). Image: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn


Der Haushofmeister: Peter Matić
Ein Musiklehrer: Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Der Komponist: Sophie Koch
Der Tenor/Bacchus: Johan Botha
Primadonna/Ariadne: Soile Isokoski
Zerbinetta: Daniela Fally
Ein Offizier: Oleg Zalytsky
Ein Tanzmeister: Norbert Ernst
Ein Perückenmacher: Won Cheol Song
Ein Lakai: Marcus Pelz
Harlekin: Adam Plachetka
Scaramuccio: Carlos Osuna
Truffaldin: Jongmin Park
Brighella: Benjamin Bruns
Najade: Valentina Naforniţa
Dryade: Rachel Frenkel
Echo: Olga Bezsmertna
Director: Sven-Eric Bechtolf
Sets: Rolf Glittenberg
Costumes: Marianne Glittenberg
Lighting: Jürgen Hoffmann


The Vienna State Opera’s annual repertory performances of Ariadne auf Naxos have been put out to fester somewhat in recent years. The ramshackle Filippo Sanjust production, haunted by memories of Edita Gruberova and finally retired in 2011 after 35 years of service, had long felt as if the richest man in Vienna was the long-lost relative of two Long Island residents by the name of Bouvier Beale. Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s new staging, co-produced with the Salzburg Festival (where the opera was performed in its 1912 version), isn’t very original, but does offer a much fresher look than its predecessor. In its first lease of life, it is also playing host to some noteworthy musical happenings: Krassimira Stoyanova made her role debut as Ariadne at the December 2012 premiere, and this season’s run marks Christian Thielemann’s first time helming a Strauss opera in this city.

The Viennese do not keep a sense of proportion with Thielemann. Audiences smother the man with their worship, not just willing a sensation but firm in the collective conviction that one will happen no matter what. The day after, local critics rhapsodize in reviews which can read as though written before a note was played; in one paper there is routinely the insistence, equally trippy and provincial, that Vienna has witnessed some transcendental experience which couldn’t befall another house in the world. Little wonder that Thielemann himself emerged ruddy-faced and bashful at the thunderous curtain call, looking quite dazed.

The transcendental experiences of others are, practically by definition, not universally accessible, or as one puzzled island-stranded lady puts it, “Gibt es kein Hinüber?” Going to more performances in this series was probably essential for understanding, because however formidable Thielemann’s Strauss reputation, he’s still at the mercies of Vienna’s hectic repertory system and off-nights are to be expected. The evening I attended sounded as if the Staatsoper orchestra, which includes members of the Vienna Philharmonic, had spent a draining morning on bar-by-bar groundwork, skipped lunch for a run-through of Bohème, squeezed in a late afternoon Musikverein rehearsal for their next subscription concert, and only then paused to down an excess of Nespresso on the way back to the Staatsoper. When this orchestra launches into Ariadne it’s usually buoyant or bustling with a distinct note of cultivation, but the musicians here, while certainly pumped, pulled in a dozen high-strung, untamed directions. The winds and horns were on fine mellow form, but such a contribution falls by the wayside when unfocused strings hack through the Vorspiel.

The second half’s more settled pacing brought things under control only fitfully, and I wondered if I was simply sitting too close to the pit. Then, rather late in the game, the Vienna Philharmonic showed up along with Bacchus, and there was a glimpse of what all the fuss had been about. These final moments of the opera, devoted to Hofmannsthal’s mysterious ‘allomatic’ transformation, take on a metaphysical dimension, and few do numinous grandeur as well as Thielemann can. Even fewer would provoke the thought that the end of Ariadne auf Naxos and Götterdämmerung share the same key, but when Thielemann does gravitas you get the full works.

There was singing in this opera too, although the principals got roundly buffeted by the pit and there wasn’t always much to hear. Norbert Ernst’s Tanzmeister and Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s very dry Musikmeister made little impact. The Komponist’s big moments got more or less lost in the unsettled flow of things, yet Sophie Koch came across gamely flustered in a manner not unbefitting the character. Daniela Fally’s Zerbinetta is all there minus a few marginal manoeuvres and a trill, but sounds tinny and uninspired these days. Her ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ was something of an interminable exercise in lighting damp tinder, although a more flexible beat from Thielemann might have helped. Soile Isokoski does not pour out ‘Ein Schönes war’ in the common oxygen-devouring style, or at least did not here, but her quicker, lighter approach was not all that memorable in itself. She had more vocal presence and lustre when singing with Bacchus, however. The production’s Noises Off aspects conspired – judging by the titters, not just in my mind – to make Johan Botha’s pinging ‘Circes’ faintly comical, but there is no doubting he has the notes.

Gentler scoring for the smaller roles gave the ensemble a chance to stand out, and this was the finest I’ve heard these parts sung in this house. Valentina Naforniţa, Rachel Frenkel and Olga Bezsmertna blended exquisitely for a ‘Töne, töne, süße Stimme’ which lived up to the words. With Zerbinetta’s troupe every detail of the interplay could be heard with exemplary clarity, and the easily-taxed Benjamin Bruns showed a brightness of tone that was quite new to me. Adam Plachetka sang a touching, wistful ‘Lieben, hassen’ while perched over the pit, practically in the wings – exactly the right place for this, with introverted Personenregie to complete the mood.

Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s production has its fair share of these reflective moments, but the overall tone is light-hearted and it is certainly no concept production (no Bechtolf staging is ever a concept production). The white-walled Biedermeier minimalism of Rolf Glittenberg’s set is a world Christof Loy very much likes to work in, but appears chosen here for its classically Viennese look, and indeed the tent and bag chandeliers which Bacchus cheesily levitates at will are a visual hallmark of the Musikverein. It’s a big space, kept quite empty during the Vorspiel save for smattered choreographed outbursts of activity. The Vorspiel then leaks into the opera proper, with Noises Off antics from the Tanzmeister and others, and Ariadne breaking character to be an indignant diva around Zerbinetta’s troupe. The presence of house guests sat upstage seems fitting, then, and not just another inert use of theater-in-theater (never mind that the opera is performed to us rather than them). The device only grates when Bechtolf tries to be metatheatrically creative: we are given to understand that Zerbinetta’s troupe zipping along on scooters is the level of humour enjoyed by the richest man in Vienna, and the super who plays him gets excited making ‘he’s behind you’ pantomime-style gesticulations, but the humour level of the actual production is not much more sophisticated than this, so… if he’s a buffoon, what does that make us?

All would be forgiven if this were finally the production which attempted the 9pm fireworks at the end of the opera – but alas that was not to be. For an already mildly silly staging of Ariadne with huge French windows, it’s a tragic missed opportunity.

Seb Smallshaw

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