News leaked out about Glyndebourne's season-opener, a new production of Richard Strauss's delicious confection Ariadne auf Naxos, a few days in advance of the first night, setting up quite an expectation of what was to come. An unknown but heralded German director was going to take a radical new approach to the opera, with Glyndebourne itself as the location and World War II the backdrop. With the Sussex opera house's usually sky-high musical standards anticipated, this could be quite an event.
This is a work of two halves: a fast and furious prologue that sets up one of opera's most ingenious crises, when two incongruous entertainments are sent crashing into each other, and a more leisurely second half where all difficulties are finally flung aside and harmony reigns in a meltingly lovely conclusion. Hofmannsthal's libretto is one of the most unusual in the repertoire and, as always with his Strauss collaborations, one that can be taken seriously as drama even when comedy is at the heart of it.
It's a scenario open to a wide range of interpretations (artists subjected to the ridiculous demands of absentee patrons and forced to cut, cut, cut has some obvious contemporary resonances) and Katharina Thoma gives us something that partly succeeds in shedding new light.
The country house of a rich benefactor of the arts lends itself well enough to 1940s Glyndebourne, with some fun visual references: the Prima Donna (Soile Isokoski) as Gloria Swanson, ready for her close-up, Laura Claycomb's lithe, flame-haired Zerbinetta a sexy It Girl and her troupe of entertainers an emblazered ENSA quartet. The busy coming and goings of the prologue, swirling around Kate Lindsey's neurotic boy Composer, are nicely done.
The prologue ends with, not the much-vaunted grosses feurwerk, but real-life explosions as enemy bombers jettison their payloads over the South Downs (actually some indoor pyrotechnics, manifesting the clash of the real and artificial in unexpected ways).
After the long dinner interval, the Opera takes us in a different direction, as any sense of theatrical representation is left behind. The country house is now re-commissioned as a sand-bagged hospital and Ariadne a shell-shock victim, cared for by three dryads-turned-nurses. It explains her confused mental state and delusions that a god is coming to rescue her and when he does arrive it's not Bacchus the deity but a wounded RAF pilot, a mere man after all. It all goes some way to explore the Ariadne/Zerbinetta play on Man as God but for anyone who doesn't know the work, it's likely to be more than a little confusing. Doing your homework by reading the various press interviews Thoma has done recently will help but it shouldn't need to be that way.
So far we have a concept that has the germ of an idea (maybe more, to be fair) but what of the performances? Isoskoski is a fine Straussian, rich and creamy, and she delivers more than adequately. In the performance of the evening, Kate Lindsey is an excellent Composer, in the Alice Coote tradition of convincing callow youth acting. Claycomb's Zerbinetta dances and acts prettily, and has most of the notes, but there's a lack of vocal bloom and agility in her coloratura. What should be the real showstopping moments aren't quite there but there's fun to be had in the sight of her finishing the "Großmächtige Prinzessin" aria by being dragged into straitjacketed captivity.
Sergey Skorokhodov's Bacchus is more problematic, as some of the notes evade him, and there's not the heft the role demands. The commedia troupe despatch their roles effectively enough but the lack of definition in a quartet who look identical, leads to under-characterisation.
Vladimir Jurowski coaxes lovely sounds from the chamber orchestra drawn from the LPO and the performance of Strauss's miraculous score is the greatest strength of the evening.
- Simon Thomas
Ariadne auf Naxos will be shown live in cinemas on Tuesday 4 June and streamed on the Guardian and Glyndebourne websites