Monday, 1 September 2014

Royal Opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

[From OPERA, September 2014, pp. 1149-50]

Ariadne auf Naxos
Royal Opera at Covent Garden, June 25
With this revival of Christof Loy’s 2002 Ariadne auf Naxos—the third of three of the Hofmannsthal operas presented in the 2013-14 season—the Royal Opera’s modest celebration of the Strauss year came to a conclusion. The performances also marked something of a celebration for Antonio Pappano, returning to the first production he conducted as the Royal Opera’s music director, not long after having announced the extension of his contract at Covent Garden. 

It remains a smart show, and Loy himself was back to direct this fourth revival, keeping much of the comedy sharp. Yet I wonder how much of a hand he had in directing Karita Mattila, who was singing Ariadne for the first time, but in large part, one felt, simply playing herself. The result was a fascinating performance from the Finnish diva, whose haughtiness in the Prologue was deliciously funny, but who in the Opera never quite shed the Prima Donna character, creating an unusual continuity between the evening’s two parts. But while there was a compelling intensity and charisma, of course, there was little sense of vulnerability and insecurity, or, as a result, of the character’s all-important transformation. Vocally, too, there were rough edges at the top and bottom, and signs of wear and tear could occasionally be heard all through the range. Artistic generosity is what Mattila’s Ariadne offers, not cool serenity and purity of line.

She was well supported by the rest of the cast, not least by a Bacchus from Roberto Saccà whose slight dryness of tone was more than compensated for by rare elegance and stamina. Jane Archibald was impressively on top of Zerbinetta’s notes, too, rattling through ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ with considerable virtuosity, even if the voice might ideally have had a little extra sparkle and ping. Ruxandra Donose was impassioned and impulsive as the composer should be, and sang with spirit and commitment, but her mezzo is maybe a touch small for the role in this house. Sofia Fomina (no mean Zerbinetta herself, by all accounts), Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth made an unusually fine trio as Naiad, Dryad and Echo; Ed Lyon and Thomas Allen were well contrasted as a mischievous, mincing Dancing Master and pragmatic, mellow Music Master. Markus Werba’s Harlekin lacked charm, but Christoph Quest brought an authentically Austrian superciliousness to the Major Domo. 

In the pit, Pappano coaxed extremely fine playing from the reduced Royal Opera orchestra, and conducted with pleasing flexibility, keeping the to-ing and fro-ing of the Prologue, in particular, light on its feet. On the first night, though, not all the transitions between the comic and serious were as seamlessly handled as they might have been, and I missed some of the magic in the final pages. One further gripe: the surtitles—more simplistic précis than translation—felt a touch insulting to the intelligence of both the librettist and the audience.

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