Review: Ariadne auf Naxos (Glyndebourne)
The return of Katharina Thoma's controversial staging of Strauss's opera
When this production first appeared in 2013 I was reminded of a spoilt child with a jigsaw puzzle. Unable to make the pieces fit, the brat hammers them into any old space until it's sort of done.
Four years on Katharina Thoma's production has returned, but time has stood still for the imaginary child. This Ariadne auf Naxos certainly sounds like Richard Strauss's comic opera, but visually it retains the air of a game gone wrong.
Strauss's lightly scored opera begins with a 40-minute prologue that establishes the premise for what follows, as a dignified company of musicians finds itself obliged to share the premiere performance of its solemn new commission, Ariadne auf Naxos, with a commedia dell'arte buffo troupe. As a touching exploration of the relative validities of high and low art, the 'real' opera works best when its clashes of style and tone are mirrored in the staging.
Thoma, however, is less interested in interpreting the opera than in reinventing it. She makes that clear in a programme note: "I thought that if something major happens between Parts 1 and 2, it could help move the characters more smoothly into the serious tone and story of Part 2". Well, thank goodness she's there to give failed creatives Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal a helping hand.
So Thoma sets the prologue in a Glyndebourne-style manor house, c.1940, just before a Luftwaffe strike. Fast forward several months and the damaged building is now a makeshift hospital, with a shell-shocked Ariadne one of its patients and Naiad, Dryad and Echo a trio of nurses. The comedians (who include an underemployed Björn Bürger, last year's loose-limbed Barbiere di Siviglia) are ENSA entertainers; the transfiguring newcomer, Bacchus, a nerve-shattered fighter pilot.
'A midnight glow of mellow beauty'
None of it works for a minute. Thoma's narrative is an incoherent jumble and tonally it's all over the place. But keep hammering, Madam Director.
It's doubly upsetting given that Glyndebourne has assembled such a strong cast for this revival. Lise Davidsen, the inordinately talented young Norwegian lyric dramatic soprano, was magnificent as Ariadne, her journey from abandonment to love transcending the scenic nonsense around her. Tenor AJ Glueckert as Bacchus was a resounding match for the heroine, while Erin Morley's stratospheric acrobatics as the comic Zerbinetta somehow survived the indignities that Thoma heaps upon her character. (Tying her in a straitjacket: that's somehow funny?)
Mezzo Angela Brower stepped ably into the shoes of the 'opera' Composer, not only in the prologue but as a shadowy presence throughout the rest of the evening. Nicholas Folwell contributed an authoritative Major Domo and the ubiquitous Music Master of Thomas Allen, in what seems like contractual obligation casting for Ariadne auf Naxos in the UK, wa in fine voice for his familiar cameo.
Best of all, the glory of Strauss's chamber orchestration was delivered in a midnight glow of mellow beauty by members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the sympathetic baton of Cornelius Meister. The woodwind playing was to die for, especially the serenely lyrical solo clarinet.
But for all the aural distractions there was no escaping the wiles of that wilful child. Let's see, then, if I can amuse her with some mental maths. Five stars for the music plus one star for the production, divided by two, makes...?
Ariadne auf Naxos continues in repertory at Glyndebourne until 27 July.