United Kingdom Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Lothar Koenigs (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London 10.10.2015 (CC)
Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos
Director: Christof Loy
Designer: Herbert Murauer
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton
Choreography: Beate Vollack
Prima Donna/Ariadne: Karita Mattila
Tenor/Bacchus: Robert Dean Smith
Zerbinetta: Jane Archibald
Composer: Ruxandra Donose
Music Master: Thomas Allen
Major Domo: Christopher Quest
A Lackey: Simon Wilding
An Officer: Nicholas Ransley
Wig-Maker: Samuel Dale Johnson
Dancing Master: Norbert Ernst
Naiad: Sofia Fomina
Dryad: Karen Cargill
Echo: Kiandra Howarth
Harlequin: Nikolay Borchev
Truffaldino: Jeremy White
Scaramuccio: Ji-Min Park
Brighella: Paul Schweinster
If it had not been for the presence of Karita Mattila, this would have been a fine performance. Praise would have been heaped on just about every cast member. The problem – if problem it is – is that Mattila dominated the stage from her very first entrance, and in the second act reminded us all what great (in the proper sense) singing is all about. Suddenly, all that fine singing was just that – fine. Surprisingly, the performance was not sold out, and there was decidedly more space post-Prologue. A great shame, as the “opera proper” contained much of the utmost beauty.
Mattila has impressed on many occasions in the past, including gracing a fabulous Beethoven’s Ninth (Proms, VPO/Abbado) where her soprano voice was positively radiant. She first tackled the part of Ariadne at Covent Garden in June 2014. Her performance is of such command and confidence that one wonders if she has ever been finer than this. From her first entrance she absolutely dominated the stage, and the performance as a whole. When she sang “Es gibt ein Reich”, such was her spell it was as if the World stopped turning, one of those moments when comparison to other interpretations becomes utterly meaningless. On a technical level, Mattila possesses the ability to deliver the purest of intervals and the upper part of her voice verges on the perfect; her acting, too, makes one believe. She provided a masterclass in the very art of opera.
Robert Dean Smith previously took the part of Tenor/Bacchus in 2008. Ruxandra Donose and Thomas Allen were both in the cast then, too. Here, Donose was excellent was the serious Composer, often wonderfully lyrical in her lines; perhaps Smith was less impressive, certainly when off-stage. If he seemed more confident in view, there remained the feeling he was not totally within the part. While preferable to his 2013 Proms Tannhäuser, there was something of a less than full realisation here. His voice remains strong, but against Mattila he became something of a shadow.
The result of all this was a real feeling of experience from the cast, a feeling that the production had gelled. It was the Zerbinetta, Jane Archibald, who was finest of the non-Ariadne characters. She looked the part (it was easy to imagine men swarming around her like bees around honey) and she sounded fabulous. Her agility is second to none, yet she could move from the superficial to the deep perfectly. Her “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” was an absolute treat on every level. Amongst the other cast members, perhaps one should mention the strong of voice and character Norbert Ernst, making his Royal Opera debut as the Dancing Master, and the terrifically experienced Thomas Allen’s delicious Music Master.
Christof Loy’s production is intriguing and clever without being particularly involving. The Prologue’s trick of raising the floor of the stage to convey an upstairs/downstairs like division is clever, admittedly. Perhaps that cleverness reflects some of Strauss’ won “cleverness” in the Prologue, but there were belly-laughs in the Prologue, too. One does miss a feeling of a proper Greek island in the opera (Mattila sits at a desk, and we are still resolutely within four walls); only the superb lighting of the close goes some way to resolution. Yet the shenanigans of the opera seria interactions with commedia dell’arte are artfully managed.
Lothar Koenigs, Music Director of Welsh National Opera, elicited some wonderful playing from the orchestra, allowing the singers space to soar and finding the utmost delicacy elsewhere. The small orchestra responded accordingly, with a sensitivity that did the score full justice.
In a world where cuts make their presence felt mercilessly (the present ENO Season, for example), it is good to be reminded of what is actually possible in the operatic sphere, and Karita Mattila certainly did that. The audience’s response when she took her bow was enormous and generous; Mattila seemed genuinely humbled. Yet there are only three performances, a tiny run. We need more of this, a big ask in the current climate perhaps, but the fact is that as one left the Royal Opera House that evening, one felt remarkably energised.