Goehr Arianna

Author: 
Michael Oliver

Goehr Arianna

  • Arianna

The title-page of Arianna describes it as a “lost opera by Monteverdi, composed again by Alexander Goehr”. Precisely. At its heart is Ariadne’s lament, all that survives of Monteverdi’s score, some of its phrases lightly modified, richly and movingly sung by Ruby Philogene. The vocal line is embedded in an elaborate instrumental texture in Goehr’s own manner, in which the modernism he grew up with (his father, the conductor Walter Goehr, was a pupil of Schoenberg) is enriched with a modality that owes a lot to Goehr’s own teacher, Olivier Messiaen, but a good deal also to Monteverdi himself. In Ottavio Rinuccini’s libretto the lament is punctuated by the grieving, sympathetic comments of a chorus; whether Monteverdi ever set these lines we may never know. Goehr has set them effectively and very beautifully, in Monteverdi’s manner: a reminder that although Schoenberg watched over Goehr’s cradle, so did Monteverdi – Walter Goehr, who both edited and performed his works, was one of the pioneers of the Monteverdi revival.
Indeed, at times, it is as though Goehr and Monteverdi had collaborated on this opera, the vocal lines, brilliant toccatas and madrigalesque choruses often sounding very much like the earlier composer, even the instrumentation suggesting that Claudio Monteverdi has been so deeply excited by the sound of the modern keyed flute, the soprano saxophone and bass clarinet that he cannot resist using them. At other times one recognizes particular sounds as characteristic of Goehr – a dialogue between Theseus and his Counsellor, for example, the former with an accompanying guitar, the latter with increasingly athletic low woodwind counterpoint – but then realizes how rooted they are, too, in Monteverdi. Often you sense the two composers absorbedly recognizing affinities. Goehr’s score is at once a loving homage, an entrancing game, and a vivid evocation for the 1990s of how dazzling, fast-moving and emotionally hard-hitting Monteverdi’s lost original must have been to its first audiences in 1608. But it could only have been written in our time and only, I think, by Alexander Goehr.
Among the opera’s other distinctions are its kaleidoscopic use of a very small orchestra (bright glitter, brazen splendour, sombre richness, all drawn from no more than 16 players) and its intensely expressive, demanding but always wonderfully singable vocal lines. The soloists are audibly grateful for this, and are almost without exception excellent. Philip Sheffield’s eloquent Theseus, Jeremy Huw Williams’s Counsellor, and the Messengers of Timothy Dawkins and Stephen Rooke stand out, even in the company of Ruby Philogene’s tremendous Ariadne, and 25-year-old William Lacey is clearly a conductor of real gifts. The live recording is admirable.'

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