Strauss, R Ariadne auf Naxos
If many productions of this fascinating, but awkward, Strauss/Hofmannsthal hybrid have erred towards the story’s comic side – the interruptions of Zerbinetta and her Harlequin troupe – Claus Guth’s brave Zürich staging centres markedly on the fate of Ariadne herself. The “backstage” Prologue plays scenery-less in front of tall curtains which work, of course, as dressing-room doors but also focus on the Composer’s frustration at having his opera mounted in such chaos. All the character’s despair is played for real here and, despite an obvious attraction to Zerbinetta, the Composer shoots himself, reappearing as a ghost in the opera proper to dance with Zerbinetta or approve Ariadne’s dilemma.
The opera proper plays in a smart restaurant where Ariadne, Brief Encounter-like with a touch of Joan Crawford, mourns her loss of Theseus. The Harlequins and Nymphs are other diners and waitresses. Ariadne’s despair, then her frustrated hope that Bacchus (whose virtues and career have been read out by the Nymphs from a tabloid magazine) is Theseus, leads her to suicide by overdose. She spends the duet with Bacchus dying. It’s amazing how well this concept fits the text sung by the opera’s serious pair.
American soprano Emily Magee has recently been seen on DVD as Elsa and Ellen Orford, superb in two widely differing operas. This performance (her debut in the role) tops both of those, beginning with the prelude to the opera where her sitting, grieving, at table is the entire action. She can also sing the part gloriously. Roberto Saccà manages this tricky target for his affections well – he becomes a sympathetic assistant to a patient’s demise – and has the vocal demands well in control. Michele Breedt is the ultra-intense suicidal Composer, Michael Volle her enigmatic, blind Music-Master (an off-the-wall idea that sets off the seriousness of the interpretation well). Dohnányi, as always (one may truly say), is a master of Straussian balance and climax. The (very) close-up filming seems to tell Claus Guth’s story to perfection. Magee’s towering performance must be seen and heard.