I must applaud the decision to include the orchestral suite "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" culled and adapted by Strauss for the original play preceding the opera with the revised opera version-they are presented as separate but related entities, and the suite does not segue into the opera. As far as I can recall, this has not been done before, and yet it makes perfect sense to do so.
Having praised the Winthertur version, I am bound to observe that this is at least as good, wonderfully played by the SCO recorded in the nicely resonant acoustic of the Usher Hall by the Couzens team, and directed with extraordinary sympathy and flair by one of the great undervalued artists we have in the UK, Sir Richard Armstrong. The balance of instruments is particularly fine.
While not being diametrically opposed to opera in English , it is not my preference, despite the Goodall Ring and many wonderful performances enjoyed at the ENO and Glyndebourne. Apart from the loss of the euphony of the original language we are used to, it almost invariably results in changes in the balance and rhythm of the work. When Wagner revised Tannhauser for Paris, it was performed as were all works, in French, and in order to accommodate the language, Wagner had to lengthen notes or shorten them, and add new notes in places. This is a case where opera in the vernacular actually changed the music itself (Wagner removed all these changes for the next performance of the revised version in Vienna-hence it should be called the "Vienna" version, not the "Paris", but I digress).
I have in fact attended 2 successful performances of Ariadne in English over the years, the last being particularly fine conducted by James Lockhart and starring the wonderful Linda Esther Gray at Gyndebourne.
The nature of the work is SO changed by this recording that it's best to think of it as a specific production set in an English Country House, much in the style of the Jonathan Miller ENO Mikado, or a P.G. Wodehouse farce. From the Music Master's opening entreaties to the Major Domo in Oh So English! tones, met by the disdain of Jeeves the Butler in the form of the dry as parchment Stephen Fry (a master stroke of casting), "we sure ain't in Vienna-or France-Dorothy!"
It works wonderfully well. Even the music seems to lose its quintessentially Viennese character under the brisk but not hurried baton of Armstrong, but this is not missed in the context of the production. The acoustic is again resonant in the typical Chandos style, and this gives a lovely bloom to instruments and voices alike. The playing is beyond praise-as indeed is most of the singing. The cast reads like a Who's Who of the best British artists of the opera stage and concert platform, and every secondary role is masterfully taken and is not bested in any other recording , with the Comedia dell Arte troupe absolutely superb.
Alice Coote is a terrific Composer, feisty and touching by turns, and Gillian Keith is a Zerbinetta for this era. Her bright steady crystal coloratura soprano is ideal for the role, and she acts perfectly as a "Hottie from the Purple Pussycat Club " as Wodehouse would have no doubt described her. She could make this role her own for a generation as did Gruberova, and I'd love to hear her sing it in German.
This leaves the roles of Ariadne and Bacchus, and while they are not the absolute best we have ever heard as the competition is very stiff, they are both very fine-yes, both!
Christine Brewer is known for her BIG soprano roles-Brunnhilde, Isolde etc. but has also acquitted herself well in Strauss songs, and in this role she has both power and delicacy. She sings with rich full tone, but also delivers beautiful pianissimo tone when required. She is not always absolutely secure in her very lowest register but this is nothing to cause concern, and overall it is a very fine performance which I enjoy-as Ralph Moore would say-"faute de mieux." She sings at least as well as Nina Stemme if not better, and she combines glowing radiant tone with a secure upper register. She is nearest to Margaret Price in overall tone, and I actually prefer her to the late Dame Margaret.
Bacchus is a trial by ordeal for any tenor. If a tenor gets through the role without resorting to shouting, or even breaking down, it is an achievement.
Normally it's a gritted teeth experience for the listener, but I'm surprised to say that Robert Dean Smith does better than cope-he does well. I particularly like that Chandos have not twiddled the balance knobs to "big up" his voice, and he does come across with much less power than Brewer, but his rather dry tenor is quite appealing, reminding me of James King who was a glutton for punishment so many times in this role, and the final duet is pretty well ravishing, it's that good.
Now, the competition is stiff-Ariadnes from Janowitz, Tomowa-Sintow, Norman and Voight are formidable, Bacchus HAS been a triumph for Heppner and my own favourite Gösta Winbergh in the original version, and Zerbinetta has been brilliantly sung by the likes of Gruberova, Battle, Geszty and Sumi Jo (I don't much care for Natalie Dessay), and in that light I cannot nominate this as an outright winner-but it's very, very fine indeed and in the sum of its parts it's a triumph for all concerned.
The translation by Christopher Cowell (presumably no relation to Simon!) is absolutely fine, apposite and witty, and there were few occasions where I felt it caused awkwardness, and it fits smoothly to the musical line.
My absolute favourite remains the live Böhm Vienna recording with the incomparable Janowitz, but this set now has a high place in my affections and I will return to it as a refreshing alternative view. It's beautifully presented with many colour shots in the booklet, notes and libretto and the set is very well filled. Highly recommended and worth more than 5 stars. Stewart Crowe.