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Glyndebourne WWII setting gets to the heart of Ariadne
on 26 June 2014
The purpose or indeed the true worth of Ariadne auf Naxos isn't always immediately identifiable. Like Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio, the opera is partly a homage to opera and older forms of music and in how they clash with a more modern sensibility, and partly it's an experiment with style and form. Musically and poetically it's clearly a work of exquisite beauty and sophistication, but isn't it really just a frivolous exercise that's overly contrived and ultimately inconsequential? Ariadne auf Naxos, of course, is only silly and inconsequential if it's allowed to be and only if it's played either too straight or its seemingly one-note joke is overplayed for laughs. It's extremely rare that a director is able to get to the heart and true genius of the work in the way that Katharina Thoma does for the 2013 Glyndebourne production.
The coming together of high art and low entertainment to reach out and say something meaningful to an audience is the "message" of Ariadne auf Naxos. Zerbinetta's deflating of the lofty expressions of Ariadne's self-indulgent grief (What she really needs is a new man!") reflects a belief that life's difficult questions may indeed be found in life's simple pleasures. Does the opera however really need so much artifice to deliver such a simple sentiment? Well, Ariadne auf Naxos is about the transformative power of love, the creation and realisation of one's dreams and illusions, the creation of "little gods", and in a way that's what opera does too. It's not life, it's an artificial construct, but it's one that nonetheless contains essential truths, real emotions and feelings and stagecraft and illusion is very much a part of the package.
The WWII period setting for this Ariadne auf Naxos has proven to be controversial in some parts - which I find hard to believe. In reality it's fully supportive of the themes of the work and its opera within an opera conceit by cleverly placing its country estate setting within the country estate setting of Glyndebourne. More than just being a clever self-referential idea however, Katharina Thoma makes the essential conflict within the opera work by relating it back to an issue that plagued Strauss and his librettist Hugh von Hofmannstahl through most of their working lives - the question of the split between the world of the artist and reality. His career spanning two world wars, the question of whether the artist has any responsibility for what goes on in the wider world or whether they should remain above politics and concerned only with essential universal questions of human nature was a particularly thorny question for Strauss as a German composer.
It's not difficult to see Strauss' personal dilemma in the character of the Composer and his horror of the desecration of his glorious work of art - "Why drag me from my world into this?", he asks as fighter planes fly over the stately home, bombs explode and masonry falls from the ceiling onto the stage. The actual performance of the combined operas takes place subsequently in the same stately home that has now been converted into a field hospital for the wounded. Looking like a WWII entertainment company, Zerbinetta's chirpy optimism however represents the spirit and tenacity of the ordinary citizen to pull through, no matter how bleak the situation, although she herself exhibits signs of PTSD. Bacchus arrives as a battle-weary fighter pilot ready to assist Ariadne through to the promise of the new post-war world. This is simply marvellous characterisation and presentation. The power of art, theatre, music and - very specifically - music and opera to transform and illuminate reality is exactly what Ariadne auf Naxos sets out to demonstrate. There's nothing frivolous about it.
And if the stagecraft helps brings these elements out, the performances are no less critical to getting the message across. Soile Isokoski is a soaring Ariadne, Sergey Skorokhodov a suitably heldentenor Bacchus, Kate Lindsey an intense Composer, singing marvellously and even making her presence felt in the second part, Laura Claycomb a sparkling Zerbinetta. Vladimir Jurowski draws out the delicate beauty of the opera's reduced ensemble instrumentation, tying its deceptively simple melodies accurately to the tone and the intent of the production. The region-free Blu-ray presents the production well on a BD50 disc, with extra features that look at the design and concept. Jurowski is particularly impressed at how insightfully the production draws out all the meaning of a difficult work. Subtitles are in English, French, German and Korean.