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Sunday 19 February 2012

Renée Fleming's first Ariadne Auf Naxos in Baden-Baden

Festspielhaus Baden-Baden

Photo: Andrea Kremper

Ariadne Auf Naxos is another of my all time favourite operas, but like Rosenkavalier it is a bit of a fragile creature and its imperfections make it hard to pull off: it is very difficult to stage well, and I think I can honestly say I've never seen a production that entirely convinced, especially in the final half hour. Hofmannsthal's central poetic idea about the conflict in life between maintaining our principles in the face of the mystery of transformation and renewal is a beautiful one and a constant theme of his work - we see it between Elektra and her sister Chrysothemis, in the Marschallin, and then also in the Kaiserin in Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Hofmannsthal was at great pains to explain it all to Strauss in a number of interesting letters which explain his ideas, so we are in no doubt about his intentions. The problem though, which Robin Holloway points out in one of his superb essays on Strauss, is that the central poetic idea is not fully realised in the libretto, and further, as Strauss realised straight away, Hofmannsthal does not produce a convincing enough dramatic scenario to support the symbolism (as he would also fail to do in their remaining collaborations, to ever more painful degrees).

It is absolutely imperative then, that a production of Ariadne auf Naxos is helped along by a sensitive director who can make something of the drama and really make it clear what is going on. Additionally, the whole piece plays so much with style (a Strauss speciality) that there needs to be a convincing aesthetic that can artfully encapsulate both the seria and buffa elements, making them feel sufficiently contrasted and yet part of a whole. Not an easy undertaking.

The Vorspiel, added to the revised "1916" version to make it viable for the operatic stage, is in fact the work's finest portion both from composer and librettist; one is inclined to say it is the greatest of all their collaborations along with the Marschallin's monologue in Der Rosenkavalier. The fleet dramatic pacing, the effortless mix of parlando and aria, the feeling of well sketched character, setting, events, details, the hubbub and bustle, all in perfect accord between composer and librettist, make it a very special half hour of music. It almost doesn't need directing beyond what is written on the page.

photo: Andrea Kremper

The director, Philippe Arlaud, gave it a slightly surreal contemporary setting, with big white hanging panels, a piano centre stage and various crates and signs dotted around. Sophie Koch as the composer was dressed in a suit with a mop of curly hair and delivered this melodramatic part looking and acting not unlike Rollando Villazon. I can't imagine that this wasn't a deliberate reference. Koch is a singer who perplexes me - she can be quite wonderful, and her high register particularly is extremely beautiful, but the middle often has too much vibrato for comfort and her German diction renders her largely incomprehensible. She has a ridiculously flexible mouth and insists on stretching it in every dimension: surely if she calmed this down she would be easier to understand. The chaos of this particular staging meant that the contrast between her desperate outbursts and her more noble, innig music was somewhat lost, though her tone colour might have been varied more too. Still she shined where she was meant to and got a rapturous reception at the curtain.

René Kollo was a far less cynical Haushofmeister than usual, and I missed the ironic pointing and general skepticism that the character usually treats the musicians and artist with. Christian Baumgartel was a very hoarse voiced tanzmeister, but Eike Wilm Schulte was a superb Musiklehrer, with some of the best diction I have ever heard. Though there were some nice moments of comedy, overall this was too chaotic and directionless a version of the Vorspiel for it to render the tightly wrought dramatic arch moving or even convincing.

Then to the opera proper. Here Arlaud opted for constant (wordless) interjections from characters in the vorspiel that properly are no longer a real part of the action, giving the whole thing a work-in-progress feel where one was never meant to take any of the action seriously. Needless to say I found this very distracting, it seemed as though the characters didn't give a damn about giving their audience a convincing show, and were all just trying to show off. While this may be true in the play within a play idea, it doesn't make for a very involving evening of opera, and it very quickly got boring. The composer comes onstage to hand the three nymphs their sheet music on stands during the prelude whilst they all prepare in front of a dressing room mirror. Ariadne, sitting on stage behind a screen quickly darts off to retrieve her forgotten veil. The line between the onstage "stage" and onstage "backstage" was not well defined however which makes this potentially interesting idea rather lazy and charmless in execution. At the back of the stage sits a bewigged and glamourously dressed opera audience, though of course the singing is delivered to the real audience in the other direction. Later, in Zerbinetta's aria, the men of the on stage audience flood onstage to the horror of their female partners and surround the pink dressed Zerbinetta a la Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend.

The characters for the buffa comedia del'arte scenes are dressed like circus performers or french mime artists, but their antics aren't really that funny. Throughout, I felt that Arlaud failed to really listen to the character of the music and libretto in order to inform his directional choices and the same was true of Andrea Uhmann's costumes - from both too broad, too bold, too plain - the result was that it was hard to reconcile the visuals with the sound and the subtlety of the music was lost. The seria characters are essentially dressed in concert dress with accoutrements - Ariadne gets a black veil and a red gown to reveal when she undergoes her spiritual transformation, and Bacchus gets a little white sash to go over the top of his creme suit. But there's not enough sense of character and contrast in these choices, and with the stage just a set of white steps, a few curved panels and a photo of a sky projected at the back, it all falls rather flat. The final duet essentially just becomes a concert performance of an opera, the two leads just standing and singing in evening dress with the amount of acting one would expect at such an event (i.e. there, but minimal and audience directed).

The one scene that doesn't drag is Zerbinetta's aria, which of course is a gift for directors with its flirtations, easy to stage events and final orgasmic cadenza. Afterwards Ariadne is hauled in by a minotaur (obviously it raised a laugh, but I couldn't tell you why it happened, beyond the obvious Theseus link). Right at the very end, Arlaud does something rather beautiful: Ariadne and Bacchus ascend to the back of the stage and appear hand in hand as black silhouettes in front of a white background, a simple image of loving companionship walking into an uncertain but hopeful future. Overall though, it felt like Arlaud had failed to engage with the opera and didn't seem to see its dramatic structure beyond a series of largely disconnected scenes. It made for a long evening.

Photo: Andrew Kremper
Renée Fleming started talking about doing Ariadne auf Naxos in 2008 and finally, four years on, she's realised that goal. She is still the world's leading Strauss soprano and this is her fifth full Strauss role and first new role of any kind in seven years. (Previous Strauss role debuts: Marschallin 1995, Arabella 1998, Madeleine 2004, Daphne 2005). I doubt she'll sing it often (or ever again?) as it is really a size too big for her voice but I have always preferred more silvery lyric and lyric spintos in this role than the ever heavier dramatic sopranos that seem to be the current casting preference. Having heard her recent Met Rodelinda I was a little worried I have to say, but back in Strauss territory she seemed much more comfortable, the voice sounding better than it has done in the last year. For her initial entrance scena she was clearly holding back and failed to make the impact that the part requires, but she was saving herself for the final duet in which she really soared and did some lovely things. She is one of the few sopranos currently singing with a really well developed chest register and that was on full show here, thrilling as always. I was struck again by her extraordinarily good German diction, everything clear and nicely pointed whilst never sacrificing the line, which of course is why she is the esteemed Strauss interpreter that she is, but I did wish that she had done this role five or even ten years earlier when the voice was sounding a little more fresh. But then heavier roles tend to the age the voice, which might have curtailed her career. We can't have everything!

It cannot now be denied that the voice, whilst still beautiful, is past its effortless, ravishing prime, and the difference even from the Ariadne excerpts she recorded 3 years ago is noticeable. Basically there are less overtones in the sound which means it doesn't sound as full or rich up high, and the apparently endless breath of her prime is now reduced to more mortal levels. As a Fleming admirer and devotee this is very sad for me, but realistically it must be accepted. We can be supremely grateful for the many superlative recordings she has left as a legacy, whilst also still admitting that there are still quite a few years of healthy singing ahead of her. We'll see how she tackles the role on subsequent nights.

photo: Andrea Kremper

Acting wise, she was given little to do and so sort of floundered - she's always at her best acting wise when playing realistic women similar to herself (intellectual, poised, wistful) with some sort of yearning and nostalgia to do text/music wise - hence the Marschallin, Tatyana, Rusalka, and the Figaro Countess are all ideal, and not coincidentally her most engaging stage creations. Ariadne is certainly related to this sort of figure but needs a sort of epic solidity to go with the nostalgia, which is not out of Fleming's range, but certainly needs to be helped by the staging. And here, no help was forthcoming.

Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus managed this ridiculous part incredibly well, never once sounding strained. His tone was firm and full throughout and his diction decent, so I was extremely impressed. It's not my favourite voice, but he sung every note, and sang it well which is largely a thankless task. Acting was minimal largely for the reason already stated - no direction.

Jane Archibald is a talented coloratura and whilst starting a little bland warmed up during the evening. In a production like this, of course she sort of stole the show with her holographic pink glitter bodice, pink ostrich feather tu-tu, huge cleavage and Cleopatra wig. Vocally she was pretty good, the coloratura all in place with the second half of her aria being particularly fine, lacking only a trill. If I'm being really harsh however, I would say that she isn't yet a very distinctive singer, but she's still quite young and time will tell if she turns into a true vocal personality. Basically I'm trying to rationalise why I wasn't bowled over. Will have a think after seeing her second performance.

Other roles were all nice whilst never being exceptional - I felt that the buffo scenes could have been a touch more stylish in delivery. Thielemann led an exceptional Sächsischen Staatskapelle Dresden, the playing always refined, beautiful and with exceptional ensemble - really very special, and made me wish we had an opera orchestra of this quality in England. Thielemann always kept things on a chamber scale, which suited the singers, but it did mean that occasionally this fine music making was swamped by the garish visuals of the stage. He remains, with Eschenbach, my favourite living Strauss conductor.

The production is being filmed for DVD so it will be interesting to hear what the microphones hear, and what the close ups reveal acting wise. It seemed like a missed opportunity that it should be such a dull, unengaged staging, especially since this is the Ariadne that Fleming has been recorded in for posterity, if indeed she does any others.


  1. I see you're point regarding the problem of convincingly staging the last part of Ariadne, though I have to say, for me the problematic has always been the Vorspiel. I've so far only seen one production (Kupfer's at Theater an der Wien) which made it clear and easy. All others have been a mess (apart from some very good modern productions,which are though, not much in line with Strauss and Hoffmansthal). The same was with Arlaud, the Vorspiel was a complete mess, and unless you knew the libretto inside out, you were probably lost and completely distracted from the music (as my companions were).
    As for the singers, I really enjoyed Fleming, and actually liked her live perfomance better than the recorded one. The former, with all it's flows, was more inteligent, and natural. The CD performance, although being exceptionally beautiful, was slightly colded. At least that was my impression.
    I was also not blown away by Archibald. I guess my problem with her are her highs. She just didn't have the power to pull them off fully and sounded a bit strained. there was no sparkle in coloraturas. I'm still under impression from hearing Gruberova's Zerbinetta just few years ago, which is aeons away.
    Dean Smith was amazing, but I would not agree that his singing was efortless, one could really hear how strained he was with high notes.
    Also was not so thrilled with Staastkapelle there were a lot of coordination issues and some sloppyness in their playing.
    All of this notwithstanding, musically this was an amazing Ariadne.

  2. Many thanks for this informative review. I'm going to BB this Saturday for the last performance of the much awaited Ariadne and am both curious and thrilled.

  3. Very nice review. Although yours is better worded, I think you and I heard many of the same things. I had the exact same hesitation re Archibald, by the way, but it felt grudging to overemphasize it.

  4. Thanks all for your comments and compliments, and thanks Jack for linking me on Parterre! We do seem to agree on most points. (and mostly in agreement with Bogda too! All good as I have been getting grief from singer friends for being too critical recently!) I have heard pirates of both of those Fleming role debuts and both are indeed spectacular. Her 1998 Arabella particularly was probably never bettered - one can only pray that it'll be released from the archives one day, along with her Jenufa and Met Peter Grimes (Ellen Orford).

    I'll try to report if anything changes as the shows continue.

  5. watch it live on this saturday.

  6. Just watched it on Medici and found the production a mish mash of ideas but nevertheless quite entertaining. Renee Fleming was impressive, if somewhat underpowered, and looked somewhat matronly. My previous Ariadne was the Canadian Opera Company production last May in Toronto with Adrianne Pieczonka as Ariadne and she was suberb. Her voice is laser like, beautiful,solid and opened up in the last scene with amazing depth and volume. To my mind an Ariadne for the age. This was vocal bliss. Archibald was the Zerbinetta and seemed vocally well equipped for the part. Alice Coote was the Composer and it doesn't get much better than that.

  7. I would love to hear Adrianne Pieczonka do this role - the clips on youtube look promising. I'm not quite as big a fan of Alice Coote as everyone else seems to be, but maybe I've just never caught her on a particularly good night. She's obviously very good indeed, but I'm not sure I'd put her up there with Seefried, Von Stade, Baltsa (three personal favourites).

  8. One really has to be very careful when judging performances by the recordinds. The voices sound completly different live. Pieczonka is certainly a great Ariadne, but no match for Fleming. I've heard her live sing the role in Vienna, and although it was very good, it was just nothing more than that. There is just some unearthly beauty in Leming's voice that not many can match

  9. Yes of course. Though Fleming's voice has an unearthly beauty in both situations.

  10. Here's the third night "Gibt es kein Hinuber":

    You hear quite how beautiful the sound is still, but also that there is a loss of lustre, and occasional shortness of breath which would never have happened before. But the smoothness of the legato is quite wonderful.