on 16 July 2014
This one's a treat! The conducting and singing are outstanding. Renee Fleming, Sophie Koch (always a favourite) and Jane Archibald all do full justice to the three main female parts- and the secondary parts are well treated as well; I especially enjoyed Nikolay Borchev as Harlequin and the Naiad, the Dryad and the Echo (such a lovely, melodic part) were beautifully voiced by Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten, respectively. This production is on the whole quite decent. It certainly isn't as impressive or radiant as Christof Loy's visually scrumptious , (in)famous, long-running Covent Garden one, which keeps returning to the Royal Opera House every 6 years since its initial run in 2002, (revived in 2008, then 2014)-and long may it keep returning, for our pleasure and delight. I mention Loy's Ariadne here, because I ordered this DVD due to its 2014 revival. The reason is the amazing Jane Archibald, who is a glorious Zerbinetta in both of these productions. Archibald made her Royal Opera House debut this summer in Loy's revival, and that's where I first saw her. She is easily the best Zerbinetta I've ever witnessed bar none- live or recorded. Seeing her live at the ROH, singing one of the most difficult soprano coloratura roles in the history of opera so magnificently and so effortlessly, as if it was just a walk in the park, made my jaw drop. I wasn't the only one in the audience feeling this way. So, when I read in my programme that there was a Decca DVD out, with a filmed performance from Archibald, I had to have it and I ordered this DVD from Amazon the moment I returned home. Watching this, I admire her even more: Her 2014 performance was even better than her 2013 one; she seems to develop, to get constantly better and more comfortable in this role; it almost is like a second skin to her now. If you are a dedicated Strauss fan too, this'd be a worthy addition to your collection, just by virtue of Archibald's presence alone.
Excellent singing aside, the direction is nothing to write home about. Brian Large has apparently directed many Ariadnes for various opera companies during his career, but I doubt this is one of his best, although I haven't seen his other ones, to be fair. It could have been much better, especially for the Opera proper. At least we can thank our stars that this Ariadne is not set in any kind of war or military situation. German (and Austrian) operas often seem to be staged in (various kinds of) war environments, for no discernible reason. It is good to see this doesn't happen here, as there's always the fear. For opera goers in the UK, there are fresh memories of a recent "war" Ariadne: It was only last year that the Glyndebourne Festival gave us a production of the work set in WWII, which ended up being discussed mainly because of its staging, rather than in praise of its conductor, orchestra and singers' performances. There's always something inherently wrong with an operatic production, which ends up being notorious due to its visuals, rather than due to its music performances. You might know the production I mean: the one where there were bombing air raids in the Vorspiel, with Bacchus as an Air Force pilot, and with singers performing in straightjackets(!) There's no problem with a director's vision being "modern." Nevertheless, it should also be coherent and it should fit the work's story, on some level. Unfortunately, (even taking into account its composer's "difficult" political past) Ariadne's plot does not mix well with war scenarios, no matter how you look at it. So, even though this production's direction wasn't exactly breakthrough, it was a relief to see it stayed well clear of any kind of military situation and concentrated on what we, as an audience, are paying good money to see in the first place: Strauss's superb music, extremely well performed.
One thing that surprises here is that the audience don't seem to laugh at all at the opera's jokes, even though Hofmannsthal has put some pretty good ones in the Prologue. Not even a smile seems to have been cracked by this audience (and there was one; you can see them sitting there at the beginning and you hear them applauding at the end; in between there's silence). This production and the acting encourage mirth, but the audience remain utterly serious for the duration. Maybe someone told them this was being filmed, so they had to be quiet? Or perhaps, they felt it'd be disrespectful to laugh at anything classical? As this is essentially a comic opera, at least for its first part, I can't help but feel that Strauss and Hofmannsthal intended it to be something people would laugh at, so this audience's complete lack of reaction feels bizarre- and very different to all the British Ariadne audiences, of which I have been a member during the years, who all laugh rather heartily during the Vorspiel (and often, hilariously, do so at the wrong moment, when the captions translating the joke can be read and not when the actual joke comes in the spoken/sung German). To see such a limp audience here made this vibrant, lively, opera feel oddly lifeless.
The DVD's "booklet" is rather flimsy. I'd have expected a bit more for the price of this DVD: a small bio for each of the singers, something on Christian Thielemann or, perhaps, some information on the exceptional Staatskapelle Dresden and their historical connection to Strauss, for example. There is nothing, as if a buyer is expected to be an opera aficionado, who already knows everything. There is but the one article with a few titbits of interesting info, mainly regarding famous director Max Reinhardt's "contribution" to Ariande's initial form as part of a music theatre piece based on Moliere's "Bourgeois Gentilhomme" which Reinhardt was to direct. But I expected something more!
This being the 150th anniversary of Strauss's birth, one feels one should buy something Straussian. Many of Strauss's fans in the UK have been disappointed by the lack of any interesting 2014 productions to celebrate his anniversary. There really hasn't been anything special done by any of the UK opera companies, with the exception of the ROH's brilliant "Frau Ohne Schatten" in March, which was sublime (I wish THAT was on DVD). As the gentleman next to us at the opening of Loy's Ariadne 2014 revival jokingly observed: "They all probably ran out of money last year, celebrating the Verdi and Wagner bicentenaries". What a pity to "ignore" such a fascinating composer. And in the country (and city) where the first performance of "The Four Last Songs" was given! There could have been Intermezzos, Feuersnots, performances of the many other rarely seen Strauss works, but there is nothing. So if it is down to us, the audiences, to pay tribute to that unique poet of sound, then buying this DVD is not a bad place to start.
When it comes to the work itself, Ariadne, what can one say? It is one of the warmest, most beautiful, shimmering, works that Hofmannsthal's and Strauss's collaboration has given us. For some, it is Strauss's favourite work and for others their second best, after Rosenkavalier. It might not have the depth of an Electra or a Salome, but it has the power to cheer and delight and it certainly is a good place to start if you are a Strauss newbie, as it is one of his "easier" more melodic works. Definitely the one I'll be starting my daughter on, where Strauss is concerned. For me Strauss is a genius, the best of the best, possibly better than even Wagner, due to his easy accessibility to all kinds of audiences. One sometimes feels that Wagner himself, who wished more than anything else to make opera available and accessible to the general public, might have envied Strauss a little, had they both been alive today. Why? Because these days Wagner's operas are mainly attended by members of the elite, by those who can afford the exorbitant ticket prices of their productions (a full Ring can go for the price of a small car, if you're lucky to find tickets in the first place). Yet Strauss's works are still quite affordable, very popular and generally attended by people of all financial means, ages, nationalities and walks of life- at least in the UK theatres and opera houses. One can't help but feel that Wagner might have envied this a little. And just like Wagner, Strauss creates big passion in people: I have never been able to go to only one performance of any given Strauss UK production; there's always this feeling of needing to go back for seconds. Many other people seem to be in the same position as me, going again and again to see the same Strauss productions, eager to experience the magic for one more time. And he IS magic. Yet, if opera programmes and biographies are to be believed, Strauss spent much of his creative life comparing himself to Wagner -and haunted by the ghost of his despotic father, who was no Wagner fan. Why the comparison, one wonders. What need of that, when the beauty of his music is so unique, its sweetness so unsurpassable, and the emotional landscapes that he painted with his notes defy anything that could be put on paper, in the form of words? Did he really feel the need to compare himself to Wagner, or is it in fact only subsequent generations of critics and music scholars that are keen to do so- and why? Because they were both perfectionists, because they were both German? Wagner has always had me defeated; majestic, pompous, effective and rather cynical, he often makes the not-so-brainy, yet dedicated, opera lover (like me) feel a bit like a Brazilian footballer. One often feels as if one needs a degree in psychology in order to understand Wagner's vision. On the contrary, Strauss, even with his more "demanding" works such as Salome or Electra, always feels first and foremost like entertainment and pleasure; a full-on sensual delight. His music's beauty is breath taking. One can feel his brain working behind the art, without it hiding the art from sight - and without the art losing its appeal to "everyman" for one second. That is why he will always be one of the most loved, most performed composers of all time. And that is why you shouldn't miss the opportunity of owning a DVD of a production as good as this one.