Lise Davidsen is Imperious in Katharina Thoma’s Comic and Profound Ariadne auf Naxos

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Glyndebourne Festival 2017 [1] – Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Cornelius Meister (conductor). Glyndebourne, East Sussex. 25.6.2017. (JPr)

Lise Davidsen (Prima Donna/Ariadne) & Nicholas Folwell (Major-Domo) (c) Robert Workman


Director – Katharina Thoma
Set Designer – Julia Müer
Costume Designer – Irina Bartels
Lighting Designer – Olaf Winter
Movement Director – Lucy Burge

Cast included:

Prima Donna/Ariadne – Lise Davidsen
Composer – Angela Brower
Zerbinetta – Erin Morley
Tenor/Bacchus –  AJ Glueckert
Music Master – Thomas Allen
Dancing Master – Michael Laurenz
Scaramuccio – François Piolino
Harlequin – Björn Bürger
Brighella –  Manuel Günther
Truffaldino – Daniel Miroslaw
Naiad – Hyesang Park
Dryad – Avery Amereau
Echo – Ruzan Mantashyan

Time to go down memory lane again since it was over a year ago we lost the great British tenor Alberto Remedios and he was in the first opera I ever saw at Covent Garden, Ariadne auf Naxos, in 1978. He was a wonderful Bacchus and Thomas Allen was Harlequin. Fast-forward nearly 40 years and it was marvellous to see Allen on stage once again in the same opera, this time giving a typically nuanced and superbly enunciated performance as the Music Master.

Though what Ariadne auf Naxos actually is about remains something I have struggled with over those subsequent decades. I have rarely found this opera as satisfying as I did now at Glyndebourne in their revival of Katharina Thoma’s controversial 2013 production. I haven’t seen this opera for some time and perhaps that made the difference?

The plot involves the richest man in Vienna having a party with his guests being treated to a new opera; Ariadne auf Naxos of course. It is set on a desert island, where the jilted princess Ariadne, a personification of faithfulness and constancy, is pining for her lover, Theseus, and wants to die. When the god Bacchus turns up, she initially thinks he is the messenger of death. He is instantly infatuated with Ariadne and although she falls into his arms she never really seems to figure out who he actually is. As comic relief, the rich Patron has hired a commedia dell’arte troupe to perform the farce The Faithless Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers. The evening is to be capped off with fireworks beginning on the dot of 9pm. As everything starts to run late, the Patron decrees to the startled performers that both entertainments must be staged simultaneously and how they do that is up to them.

A musical class war – and much mayhem – follows in a mashup being performed of highbrow opera and lowbrow comedy as opera seria collides with opera buffa. It is as though Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, want us to consider what choices we would make concerning art, love, and fidelity. It all ends with an homage to the love duets by Wagner for Siegfried and Brünnhilde and Tristan and Isolde. Wagnerian themes abound – too many to really detail here – about mothers dying in childbirth, a magic potion, oblivion, pain and Bacchus accompanying Ariadne to the realm of death. In the end Zerbinetta sticks to her own, oft-repeated, philosophy that when a woman is in love, her heart belongs completely to her man – until the next love comes along: ‘When the new god approaches, we surrender without a word’.

Perhaps like Bayreuth what causes outrage once year will when revived become a success. I remember reading less-than-glowing reviews when Katharina Thoma’s staging was first seen at Glyndebourne. Strauss’s longueurs notwithstanding, it was more than worth the fact that coming to see it in the beautiful East Sussex countryside involved for me almost as much interval as opera … and travel equal to both of those together!

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and Katharina Thoma’s staging owes plenty to Stefan Herheim’s 2008 Bayreuth Parsifal. His setting there of Wagner’s home, Wahnfried, becomes an English country house in the early years of WWII. At the end of the Prologue the house comes under attack from a Luftwaffe air raid and the house catches light … not an image you necessarily wanted to see this July in Britain! Much the same happens at Bayreuth. For the Opera – mirroring in part Herheim – the country house (Wahnfried) has been requisitioned as a hospital for war wounded; the Dryads (Wagner’s flower maidens) are dressed as nurses, and there is some cross-dressing. Ariadne is traumatised and suicidal, Bacchus is a wounded fighter pilot and Zerbinetta is leading an ENSA concert party, which explains the piano on stage throughout. The Prologue was divinely comic and the Opera was quite profound; not so much due to Strauss, Hoffmanstahl or Thoma, but because some of the themes explored are possibly even more contemporary now than they were in 2013.

While I understand Strauss uses a much-reduced string section in this opera; despite the valiant, finely paced, efforts of Cornelius Meister and his members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I sorely missed much of the composer’s authentic swelling passion, rich orchestral textures and colours.

It was a fine ensemble performance and the lack of orchestral volume certainly helped the singers with every word they sang (or spoke) being clearly heard. Angela Brower was impassioned and touching as the Composer who unusually stays on during the Opera to experience, in this case, the true(?) nature of love through her own composition. The well-drilled burlesque quartet is led by the engaging Björn Bürger as Harlequin and the Dryads are spirited, with Hyesang Park particularly catching the ear. Nicholas Folwell is a suitably droll (non-singing) Major-Domo though I wish the audience had been given more of what he said in the surtitles.

AJ Glueckert is helped by the intimate size of the Glyndebourne theatre and is a sturdy – but far from transcendental – Bacchus. Never does he look the ‘beautiful god of peace’ Ariadne suggests he is and I suspect that is Katharina Thoma being ironic. Erin Morley is an enchantingly frivolous Zerbinetta. She is the perfect foil with an engaging razor-sharp coloratura which is still capable of projecting genuine emotion through all her antics, or when being treated during the Opera for her sexual hysteria with drugs or being put in a straightjacket.

This leaves us with Lise Davidsen’s imperious Ariadne and that she soars above this cast is not just because of her height, but her obvious potential. Her future may not be so much in Strauss – where she does not have the requisite lush creamy tone or warmth (yet?) – as in the most-demanding Wagner roles, such as Isolde and Brünnhilde when her strong soaring soprano will eventually be heard at its very best. Though I wouldn’t want her to go down that road before she is ready.

Jim Pritchard

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