Glyndebourne’s Ariadne

Somewhat belatedly, I’m still musing on Glyndebourne’s Ariadne auf Naxos, seen on Tuesday, 4 June, so I just need to get some thoughts down. Apologies if it feels a bit disjointed.

Katharina Thoma’s production has had its fair share of detractors amongst critics, and with a modicum of justification. It’s interventionist, a faint whiff of Regietheater seeing it set in a country house, modelled on Glyndebourne, during the second world war. Dryad, Naiad and Echo are nurses tending to wounded soldiers during the opera. A bomb gets dropped in the gardens towards the end of the Prologue (well, if you will plan fireworks parties in the middle of the blitz, what do you expect?) In the Opera proper, all are shell-shocked and distressed, there is much assertive use of injections, for both bomb-ravaged soldiers and supposedly sex-crazed commedia dell’arte players (Zerbinetta also gets a straitjacket for good measure). Bacchus is a fighter pilot; I couldn’t quite tell you who Ariadne is in this concept. The composer prowls the stage watching his characters unfold in the opera but, in the process, blurring the divide between the imaginary and the all-too-literal.

It makes a compelling interpretation, and by-and-large, it fits the basic dramatic structure of the work to an acceptable degree, even if it does all fall apart a bit at the end with Ariadne and Bacchus singing of their curiously-newfound love. However, most fundamentally I find it hard to reconcile the concept with the musical outlook of the piece: whether the sunny, bitter-sweet world of Zerbinetta or the contrasting grandeur of the high-flown Ariadne, the stage picture, business and general demeanour of the production are too earth-bound, literal and fixed. The Opera itself takes place in the same (now bomb-damaged) room as the Prologue, but it all seemed bogged down in a lot of clutter: beds, screens, sandbags, tables, etc. As the music swells and soars for the opera’s conclusion, there is no comparable sweep in the staging – just a set of billowing hospital curtains, backlit and rising slowly upwards. The characters, as therefore reinvented, are hard to place, so they are hard to ‘get inside’ – possibly Zerbinetta excepted. No-one was helped by some truly execrable surtitles, which frequently missed out great chunks of Hoffmansthal’s poetry and in other places reduced it to vernacular rubbish.

I wasn’t swept up in the musical side of things either, I’m afraid. I found everyone hard to hear in the Prologue, and I thought Jurowksi’s tempi were on the brisk side, so that it was difficult for the comedy to project, or for the interludes of pathos between composer and Zerbinetta to register properly. I didn’t like Jurowski’s take on the music in the Opera either, there was something just too flat and hurried about it all – whether responding to the production or not, there just wasn’t enough pause, or caressing of the expansive phrases of Ariadne’s music or the building arc of the final duet.

Soile Isokoski made a more impressive Ariadne than Prima Donna, but I did want just a bit more of a sense of opening up in moments such as that wonderfully radiant phrase ‘Du wirst mich befreien…‘ in Es gibt ein Reich. Her acting was, however, detailed and engaging. In the short but devilish role of Bacchus, Sergey Skorokhodov treated us to a bright, solid tenor voice, his entrance being a bit of a sit-up-and-notice moment, even if he did start to flag just a little by the end. I was a bit conflicted on Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta: she acted intelligently and naturally, and fitted voice to the drama fantastically – still deploying the coloratura of Grossmächtige Prinzessin with tremendous visual and vocal skill, even when being fitted into a straitjacket. It wasn’t, though, a very ‘traditional’ Zerbinetta sound: less sparkly and clarion than may be traditional, but this extra layer of complexity made the role a fascinating anchor-point for the production. The nurses (Naiad, Dryad and Echo) blended beautifully, and it was a particularly infuriating aspect of the musical direction that their final reprise of Töne, töne, süße Stimme… was so matter-of-factly treated. As Composer, Kate Lindsey was fantastically gauche and, in the space she was given to do it, gave a radiant account of Musik ist heilige Kunst.

So, the sun shone, the food was rather lovely (in ‘Nether Wallop’, since you ask), the company was delightful, the champagne stayed chilled on the journey down… but the opera just lacked the necessary fizz. Some wonderful moments, and a production that undoubtedly gave some pause for thought, but just not quite the spirit-uplifting experience that I have always hitherto found Ariadne auf Naxos to provide. “Was bleibt, was bleibt von Ariadne? … Nun bin ich anderer als ich war.”

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