Strauss was not above judging the look of his leading ladies, complaining if they were too fat or too old. This 'male gaze', which according to some feminists sets up a relationship of power between watcher and watched, is what Canadian director Robert Carsen is looking to challenge. He does this by adapting Strauss and Hofmannsthal's original twin themes of theatricality and sex/love, dragging the story out of its original early eighteenth-century setting and into the here and now.
From the off we are asked to consider where life ends and theatre starts, with the action spilling out beyond its usual spatial and temporal borders. As we take our seats, a group of dancers – who augment the usual commedia dell'arte troupe – are warming up while watching themselves in mirrors. The overture then sees the dancers practising their moves under the gaze of the master of the house, certainly in power here since he's paying their wages. Later, the mirrors are placed in front of the audience so its members are forced to watch themselves watching, destroying the theatrical illusion. The house lights, not always dimmed in the usual fashion, are used to encompass the audience within the sphere of action and, throughout the Vorspiel, characters emerge from ordinary seats or from the back of the hall.
The production attempts to solve the chief weakness of the opera, which is that the full potential for interaction between the opera seria and commedia dell'arte characters is not realized. In her opening aria, Ariadne – Adrianne Pieczonka, with an immaculate Wagnerian soprano voice – is joined by the female dancers who, dressed in the same sombre costume as she is, mirror her actions. This gives Carsen an opportunity to subvert the male gaze. When Harlekin amusingly leaps out of character, we realize that some of the female forms we've been admiring are actually male.
Of course, the men in the audience were all keen to have a good 'gaze' at Diana Damrau, in the role of Zerbinetta, her hourglass figure looking particularly alluring in a slinky black dress and trashy red stilettos. Our desires were initially frustrated by placing a silent Ariadne in between her and the audience. She just stood there, with her back to us, staring at Zerbinetta, like we were all trying to sit there and do. The effect was quite uncanny. When Zerbinetta got to everyone's favourite aria – the reason most people buy their ticket – we were at last allowed an unobstructed view. But there was a price to pay. Eight of the male dancers were brought on to help illustrate her story: the ease with which she falls in love and her impressive string of conquests. However, by gradually stripping down to their underpants, it was their middle-aged, hairy man-flesh that ended up dominating the visuals.
Coloratura sopranos usually turn Zerbinetta's fiendishly difficult high roulades into a kind of hysteria showing she is not really happy with her promiscuous lifestyle. No such shame for Damrau's Zerbinetta: being surrounded by so many available naked men, the only embarrassment she felt was one of riches. Naturally, the applause brought the house down, and she obligingly showed off her cleavage and blew Marilyn Monroe style kisses into the audience.
Most of the Munich Opera Festival takes place at the National Theatre, a good sized opera house, but this production is in the much more intimate Prinzregententheater. I have always felt that pared down chamber operas such as Ariadne would be much better in a place like this, but it turns out I was wrong. With all the seats being directly in front of the stage the sound off the voices wasn't overly affected, but the strange acoustics meant that the orchestra, under Bertrand de Billy, was distant and muffled. I am assuming that it was in order to compensate for this that the playing was so laboured, striving against the grain of the scoring to get a huge Romantic sound. I have seen this opera in much bigger houses and the glistening transfiguration music that ends the work has sounded magical. Tonight it was nothing but pleasant wallpaper.
It fell to Der Komponist, a brash, swaggering Daniela Sindram, to add an unexpected but poignant coda to the proceedings. Since the Vorspiel, he had been sitting (nearly) in the audience watching as his great new opera was ruined. A light was kept on him throughout, so we could glance over and watch him watching. At the end, when the curtain came down, and the audience started to clap, he ran on to the stage. As the curtain lifted again, we saw him in the middle surrounded by nothing: the set had been removed leaving the guts of the theatre exposed. In a cunning bit of dramaturgy, as he stood there unable to believe his creation was all an illusion, the other characters then ran on to congratulate the composer. We all applauded too early: only the opera within the opera had finished.
These are all nice ideas, and they were brought to life by some excellent individual performances. However, amusing as all the 'postmodern self-referentiality' and 'disrupting the male gaze' was, it never really came together. That might be because postmodernism is already getting old (which it most certainly is: roll on post-postmodernism). But more likely because it's not the eyes but the ears that decide whether opera is good or not and without that fizz from the pit Ariadne is never going to work.
By Marc Brooks
Photos: 2008 production of Ariadne at Bavarian State Opera. Photos credits: Wilfried Hoesl
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