Tuesday 1 July 2014

Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos (Glyndebourne 2013 - Blu-ray)

Richard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Glyndebourne, 2013

Vladimir Jurowski, Katharina Thoma, Thomas Allen, Soile Isokoski, Kate Lindsey, Laura Claycomb, Dmitri Vargin, James Kryshak, Torben Jürgens, Andrew Stenson, Sergey Skorokhodov, Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke, Ana Maria Labin, Adriana Di Paola, Gabriela Iştoc, William Relton, Frederick Long, Michael Wallace, Stuart Jackson

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The purpose or indeed the true worth of Ariadne auf Naxos isn't always immediately identifiable. Like Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio, the opera is partly a homage to opera and older forms of music and in how they clash with a more modern sensibility, and partly it's an experiment with style and form. Musically and poetically - even in its pastiche of "music hall" - it's clearly a work of exquisite beauty and sophistication, but isn't it really just a frivolous exercise that's overly contrived and ultimately inconsequential? Ariadne auf Naxos however has not only remained enduringly popular over the years but in spite of the apparent limitations of its construct it has also proved to be remarkably open to exploration, reinvention and reinterpretation.

Ariadne auf Naxos, of course, is only silly and inconsequential if it's allowed to be and only if it's played either too straight or too much for laughs. It's easy to underestimate it on the basis of its central conceit, which is a bit of an inside joke. The Prologue is set at the house of the richest man in Vienna who has commissioned the performance of two operas for his dinner party, one a rather heavy opera seria on a classical subject 'Ariadne auf Naxos', the other an opera buffa 'The Fickle Zerbinetta and her Four Suitors', a vaudeville comedy "with song and dance and a plot as clear as day". Due to an unavoidable change in the schedule for the evening's entertainment however, it's been decided that they now only have time to put on both works before the firework display at nine if they are performed simultaneously. The second part of the opera after the Prologue then is the "hilarious" clash between two works that seem to have nothing in common, but which remarkably work together to create something extraordinary.

The coming together of high art and low entertainment to reach out and say something meaningful to an audience then is the "message" of Ariadne auf Naxos. This can be summed up in an early exchange between the conflicting sides over how to bring the two works together. Discussing the Princess Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus and her abandonment on a desert island, her situation is described as "Wracked with yearning she longs for death", to which the rejoinder is "Death?  What she really wants is another man." And in essence Zerbinetta's deflating of the lofty expressions of Ariadne's self-indulgent grief does reflect the belief that life's difficult questions may indeed be found in life's simple pleasures. Does the opera however really need so much artifice to deliver such a simple sentiment?

Well, Ariadne auf Naxos is about the transformative power of love, the creation and realisation of one's dreams and illusions, the creation of "little gods", and in a way that's what opera does too. It's not life, it's an artificial construct, but it's one that nonetheless contains essential truths, real emotions and feelings, and packages them up in a way that communicates directly to the listener through the magic of music and stagecraft. It's the stagecraft then - the sets, the lighting, the performances - that determines the success of Ariadne auf Naxos (or indeed any opera), and in terms of its presentation directed here brilliantly by Katharina Thoma for Glyndebourne 2013, the opera communicates to the audience everything it ought to.

The WWII period setting for this Ariadne auf Naxos has proven to be controversial in some parts - which I find hard to believe. In reality it's fully supportive of the themes of the work and its opera within an opera conceit by cleverly placing its country estate setting within the country estate setting of Glyndebourne. More than just being a clever self-referential idea however, Katharina Thoma makes the essential conflict within the opera work by relating it back to an issue that plagued Strauss and his librettist Hugh von Hofmannstahl through most of their working lives - the question of the split between the world of the artist and reality. As his career as a German composer spanned two world wars, this was a particularly thorny question for Strauss, whose neo-Classical style was regarded by many as being frivolous in the context of what was going on elsewhere in the world at that time, and even out of touch within the world of music.

Whether the artist has any responsibility for what goes on in the wider world or whether they should remain above politics and remain concerned with essential universal questions of human nature is debatable, but Strauss' work must be judged on its own terms and a good production - like this Glyndebourne one - can draw out those personal conflicts within it. It's not difficult to see the deeper question of Strauss' personal dilemma in the character of the Composer and his horror of the desecration of his glorious work of art - "Why drag me from my world into this?", he asks, and Thoma intelligently highlights this question by setting it against his reaction to the reality of the war breaking out during the Glyndebourne performance. The end of the Prologue sees fighter planes fly over the stately home, bombs explode and masonry falls from the ceiling onto the stage.

The actual performance of the two operas combined takes place subsequently in the same stately home that has now been converted into a field hospital for the wounded locals. The Composer can be seen wandering around throughout, his lofty dreams about the purity of his art in tatters. The correspondence however between his work and reality is - thanks to the insight provided by this production - plain to see. Ariadne awakens in an improvised hospital in the stately home to question "Where am I?  Am I dead?", looking around her at the destruction created to conclude that "This can't be called living". Looking like a WWII entertainment company, Zerbinetta and her suitors however represent the spirit and tenacity of the ordinary citizen to pull through, no matter how bleak the situation, and they rally behind her.

Zerbinetta's chirpy optimism however and her welcoming of each new opportunity as a god in her coloratura aria is seen here as a kind of PTSD induced delirium. She is given a sedative by the nurses (Naiad, Dryad and Echo) and wrapped in a straight-jacket. Her words and her spirit nonetheless have a transformative effect by the time Bacchus arrives and the Composer watches this transformation occur in his Ariadne, seeing the truth of the situation through new eyes. Very cleverly characterised as a heroic fighter pilot here, shot down in the dogfight over the estate - a "Captain", a god raised indeed by "nurses" - Bacchus resists Ariadne's despair for "eternal rest" as she fumbles in his jacket for his pistol, and does indeed offer her the promise of a new world arising out of the horrors of the current reality. Even the Composer here is overawed by what his creation has revealed to him.

This is simply marvellous characterisation that gets right to the heart of the work's sentiments, while at the same time illuminating the deeper truths that lie in its construction.  The power of art, theatre, music and - very specifically - music and opera to transform and illuminate reality is exactly what Ariadne auf Naxos sets out to demonstrate. There's nothing frivolous about it. And if the stagecraft helps brings these elements out, the performances are no less critical to getting the message across. Soile Isokoski is a soaring Ariadne; Sergey Skorokhodov a heldentenor Bacchus; Kate Lindsey is an intense Composer who sings marvellously and even makes her presence felt in the second part; Laura Claycomb is a sparkling Zerbinetta. Conducting the London Philharmonic, Vladimir Jurowski draws out the delicate beauty of the opera's reduced ensemble instrumentation, tying its deceptively simple melodies accurately to the tone and the intent of the production.

The Blu-ray presents the production well with a sharp, colourful video transfer and good sound mixes in LPCM 2.0 and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 that reveal the quality of the singing and the orchestral playing.  The usual Glyndebourne extra features give a good overview of the design and concept and the challenges of putting on a work like this.  Jurowski is particularly impressed at how much insight into a difficult work this production achieves.  The disc is BD50, region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German and Korean.