For their first new production of a Richard Strauss opera since the house was rebuilt in 1994, Glyndebourne - or more specifically, Glyndebourne's outgoing musical director Vladimir Jurowski - chose to open the 2013 season by mounting the 1916 version of the perennially fascinating Strauss/Hofmannsthal chamber opera Ariadne auf Naxos. To direct it they chose the young German Katharina Thoma. It made for an absolutely fascinating, sometimes inspired evening of music theatre, redolent of all the qualities for which Glyndebourne is justly famous - great ensemble playing, intelligent and often provocative staging, orchestral work (the London Philharmonic Orchestra in its 50th year at Glyndebourne) of the highest order. Not everybody will like what Thoma has done with this much-loved work, and I found myself occasionally at odds with her radical concept. But there were moments of ravishing beauty and some of her dramaturgy was on that fascinating borderline between genius and madness, so I give her four stars - and possibly a fifth on a second viewing, if the 13 performance run progresses as it ought to, and moves towards a perfectly realised concept. We shall see.
Thoma sets the Prologue in an English country house whose owner is set on having an opera - and other entertainments - mounted, to amuse his guests. So far, so very obviously Glyndebourne. The curtain rises (after some slightly overdone business with the Music Master) on an attractive large drawing room, with a grand piano stage left and a raised area at the back of stage with a few rocks and a palm tree (that wilted at appropriate moments of drama and bathos in the action). The narrative is played pretty straight: Ariadne and Zerbinetta have offstage dressing rooms on either side of the stage, the latter has male friends (in and out of uniform) who "visit", the commedia dell'arte quartet are four young men in striped summer blazers, and the atmosphere created is quite larky. But right at the end of the Prologue the mood darkens: aeroplanes pass over the house, bombs fall and the structure bursts into flame and is damaged. Cut to Act Two, where hospital beds fill the same room, the picture windows (partially damaged) look out onto a wintry garden, the patients - Ariadne among them - are looked after by three nurses, more commonly incarnated as Naiad, Dryad and Echo. To cheer up the patients, Zerbinetta and company (as an Ensa troupe) sing and dance, but Zerbinetta's set piece number Grossmaechtige Prinzessin ends with her being sedated and placed in a straightjacket. Enter Bacchus, as a wounded airman: Ariadne's redeemer has no ship to take her back to Athens, but an aeroplane to fly her into a new world. And throughout Act Two the Composer of the Prologue, whom we normally never see again after Musik ist eine heilige Kunst, interacts silently with all the characters who have been created in his opera. The curtain falls as Ariadne and Bacchus embrace (or indulge in more Zerbinetta-like practices) on a hospital bed, while the Composer gathers his music, his composure and his thoughts, and leaves the stage.
How does it work? The first thing to say is that Thoma and her designer Julia Muer have created some wonderful stage images - this Ariadne is always pleasing and sometimes ravishing to behold. The three nurses in Act Two - a slight hint of 'Call the Midwife' here - are framed against a pale pink sky through the picture windows as Ariadne and Bacchus tentatively explore each other's feelings front of stage against hospital screens. It may sound corny, but the image is powerful. Equally poignant is the silent, reflective figure of the Composer, learning the meaning of what he has created as he moves among the wounded and the sick. The only question mark still in my mind is whether or not the 'opera within an opera' as created by Hofmannsthal and Strauss really needs this raw, emotional take and realistic, institutional setting. For in Thoma's concept, Bacchus is as physically wounded from aerial warfare as Ariadne is mentally wounded by being abandoned. It is a bold rearrangement of Hofmannsthal's own concept of the work. I recall a sardonic comment after the last, loved and hated in equal measure, Salzburg Ariadne: "Yes, well one can do Ariadne like that...
But Thoma has done much, much better by respecting the music and by allowing quite large sections of the piece to speak for themselves. And what about the music? In short, triumphant. Jurowski (whose first appearance as Glyndebourne's musical director was with another chamber opera, Britten's Albert Herring), clearly loves the score and presided over a glowing, beautifully phrased, crystal clear account of some of Strauss's loveliest music. With his typical thoroughness, Jurowski rethought his orchestral placing in the pit, grouping the woodwind at the front stage left, and what glorious oboe, clarinet and flute playing we heard as a result. Indeed, all the orchestral textures sounded clean and fresh, never overwhelming the singers but still producing astonishing intensity of sound at all the big moments. This was Jurowski's debut in a Strauss opera (although he has conducted the incidental music to the original 1912 version of the piece several times) and I can't wait, one day, to hear him conduct Strauss's last opera, Cappriccio.
And so to the cast, uneven (inevitably with first night nerves) but on the whole hugely impressive. First, the three nurses: I cannot recall listening with as much enjoyment as I did last night to the Naiad of Ana Maria Labin, the Dryad of Adriana Di Paola - a future Composer if ever I heard one - and the Echo of Gabriela Istoc. They listened to each other, they played off each other and they were a highlight of Act Two. The male quartet were also musically strong and well-matched, with Andrew Stenson to the fore as Brighella but with good supporting singing (and acting) from Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak and Torben Juergens. As the Music Master in the Prologue, Thomas Allen delivered with effortless ease and took an avuncular interest in his protege, the Composer. And what a Glyndebourne debut by Kate Lindsey, the stand-out singing performance of the evening. Lindsey has attractive stage presence, energy in the voice and a lovely sense of melodic line, well supported throughout her register. The colour in her voice is dark and incisive in the low passages and silvery at the upper end. What is more, as Act Two showed, she can act effectively without singing a note. The last Composer I heard with this amount of promise was many years ago now, when Wendy Dawn Thompson made a sensational debut in the role (in a very traditional production). Lindsey is clearly going to go far.
Finally, the two female polar opposites - flighty, sexy Zerbinetta and pure, chaste, faithful Ariadne. As Zerbinetta, Laura Claycomb looked the part, in spades, and had the physique du role, even though some may question the sexual gyrations and provocative posing that she was asked to do in order to beef up her coloratura in Grossmaechtige Prinzessin. Her soprano is nicely weighted and secure and she has all the top notes, my only slight disappointment being that her articulation in that riotous ten minutes of Act Two, when Zerbinetta commands the stage and the entire audience, was not quite razor sharp. Nevertheless, she deserved an ovation and would have received one, had the director not decided to move the action on briskly and immediately - so the clapping was hushed. But Claycomb moved naturally and well onstage and commanded attention. So, in a different way, did Soile Isokoski as Ariadne. Isokoski has a long and illustrious career behind her as a singer of Strauss heroines (I heard her last as the Marschallin in Geneva last year) and has nothing left to prove. Here she sang well within herself, soaring only occasionally to the radiant heights but holding her line beautifully, phrasing with intelligence and projecting the inner intensity of an abandoned heroine with some lovely hushed tone. Youthful ardour was missing but this was an assured, well controlled performance, that was warmly received.
Miscellaneous felicities: the grand piano continuo part was played mostly onstage by the excellent Gary Matthewman; the Dancing Master was ably characterised by Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke; the spoken part of the Major Domo was subtly underplayed by William Relton (whose onstage deadpan demeanour proved the old 'less is more' adage). There were gags: some worked and some didn't, but the staging had life in it and the overall Personenregie was excellent. So all in all, this was a terrific evening of onstage entertainment and a thought-provoking take on a work that is 100 years young. For any Strauss lover, a visit to the Sussex Downs before the last performance on 11 July is an absolute must.
Photos: Alistair Muir