Christof Loy's 2002 production of Ariadne auf Naxos, one of the more problematic operas produced by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, still looks as stylish and sophisticated as ever. The Prologue begins with a dazzling coup de theâtre as the entrance hall of the house of 'the richest man in Vienna' is elevated to reveal the frenzied preparations for the evening's entertainment below – the horizontally split stage now reminding one of David McVicar's Salome, which opened in February. As some have commented before, this impressive piece of theatre is a hard act to follow and although the Prologue itself comes across effectively under revival director Andrew Sinclair, I felt the Opera was rather left to flounder.
Unfortunately, at this performance, the interval – already long at forty minutes – was extended by another ten due to technical problems and this exacerbated the feeling of the opera being a separate entity. In Loy's production, it contains no references to the Prologue that I could see and even Zerbinetta and her troupe have changed their outfits since running upstairs before the interval to perform. Ariadne, too, has changed and is now dressed in black. The commedia dell'arte episodes have lost their focus since the production was new and now the clowning around borders on the amateur. Meanwhile, the nature of Ariadne's salvation and transformation with the arrival of Bacchus is likely to leave many scratching their heads. Hofmannsthal and Strauss must take the blame for the Opera itself being problematic but the production simply shirks the challenge of elucidating the drama and, as such, is disappointing.
It is left to Deborah Voigt to call upon her experience as Ariadne to draw the audience in and she does so admirably. Isolde is now a staple of her repertoire and if, as a result, she might have lost some control over her voice – it's impossible not to notice some wayward intonation, for example – it's become, if anything, an even more magnificent instrument: steely and rich and with an ability to fill the theatre like few others. She commanded the stage, even in her brief appearances in the Prologue, and brought a seriousness and sincerity to the Opera that transcended the vagaries of the production.
Tenor Robert Dean Smith put in a decent comic turn in the Prologue and was remarkably secure as Bacchus, possibly one of the most vocally unrewarding roles in the repertoire. He acted with sincerity but for all the solidity and robustness of his singing, his voice failed to thrill or to display enough steel consistently to cut through Strauss's increasingly full textures. As Zerbinetta, Canadian soprano Gillian Keith, recently seen in Birtwistle's Punch and Judy at the Young Vic, put in a clean and secure vocal performance, and acted excellently throughout. However, she often struggled to make herself heard in the ensembles of the Prologue, many of her words not coming across. In her big aria in the Opera, 'Großmächtige Prinzessin', she projected more successfully over Strauss's lighter orchestration and negotiated the outrageous demands of the coloratura well but her light voice lacked the power and penetration that are really needed either to bring the role to life or to persuade us that the aria itself is anything but uninspired pastiche on Strauss's part.
Markus Werba's Harlequin was at an immediate disadvantage: dressed in army surplus and required to strut around eyeing up all the girls, it would be difficult to imagine the character farther removed from his commedia dell'arte origins. He delivered his song in a pleasing, plangent baritone but his final rejection of Zerbinetta again seemed to bring out a dark side to the character which is difficult to justify. Jeremy White and Jette Parker Young Artists Ji-Min Park and Haoyin Xue as Truffaldino, Scaramuccio and Brighella struggled similarly with nonsensical costumes but threw themselves into their clowning with enthusiasm. However, their lazily choreographed routines began to pall as the evening wore on. Anita Watson (another Young Artist), Sarah Castle and Anna Leese made a fine trio as Naiad, Dryad and Echo.
In the Prologue, Thomas Allen's Music Master, played as charming, a little scheming and slightly neurotic, was outstanding. The veteran baritone offered a master class in diction and the voice is still in great shape. Vocally, Kristine Jepson as the Composer also had a lot to offer. Her smooth mezzo soprano is undoubtedly a fine instrument but there was too little nuance in her performance. Apart from anything else, her tendency to sing so much of her role – the most finely crafted in the whole opera – at forte or above, impacted on her diction so that very little of her German came across properly. Alan Oke's Dancing Master was well acted and he delivered his choice comic lines with skill, and there was a nice additional irony in having Alexander Pereira, the Director of the Zürich Opera no less, as the Major Domo handling the assorted artists with a mixture of nonchalant charm and uncaring hauteur.
In the pit, the recently knighted Sir Mark Elder led the reduced forces of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera with his customary, sure touch. Yet although Elder was extended unusually warm applause even before the first note, no doubt partly in recognition of an honour long overdue, his account of the score was occasionally problematic. There was evidence of much careful rehearsal and some moments of exquisite detail: the slowing as the Composer sings 'Sie gibt sich dem Tod hin' followed by wonderfully shaped trombone and bassoon solos; the phrasing by the strings at the beginning of the Overture. There was also some untidiness, though, and the transition into the Opera's third scene, just before the announcement of Bacchus's imminent arrival, seemed snatched. In general, Elder seemed drawn to the Wagnerian aspects of Strauss's score at the expense of the composer's – admittedly often not entirely successful – attempts at neo-classicism. This made for a lack of light and shade and meant that the orchestra was sometimes too loud. This was especially the case in the Prologue where Jepson was forced to push more than she should have needed to at 'Was ist denn Musik?' However, this approach also paid dividends as the players produced a wonderfully full sound when required, and Elder drew out a particularly thrilling account of the final apotheosis.
So, a problematic revival that does little to cover over the issues associated with this problematic work. However, for Voigt's Ariadne, the fine playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra and the opulence Elder brings to much of the score, there's still much to enjoy.
By Hugo Shirley
Read our interview with Mark Elder about Ariadne, the Hallé and his career so far here