Lunar Beauty: Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House

Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos.

Der Haushofmeister – Christoph Quest

Der Musiklehrer – Thomas Allen

Der Komponist – Ruxandra Donose

Primadonna / Ariadne – Karita Mattila

Der Tenor / Bacchus – Roberto Saccà

Der Offizier – David Butt Philip

Der Tanzmeister – Ed Lyon

Der Perückenmacher – Ashley Riches

Lakai – Kim Jihoon

Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald

Harlekin – Markus Werba

Scaramuccio – Wynne Evans

Truffaldin – Jeremy White

Brighella – Paul Schweinester

Najade – Sofia Fomina

Dryade – Karen Cargill

Echo – Kiandra Howarth

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Antonio Pappano

Stage Director – Christof Loy

Royal Opera House, London. Wednesday, June 25th, 2014

This was a very special evening. It included one of the greatest singer-actresses of our time making her debut in a new role, by a composer with whom she is closely associated, at the age of 53. Combined with a cast, many of whom had impressed greatly in the work in a production at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin a few years ago, and we had the recipe for a great evening.

This was in many ways not a bel canto Ariadne and those expecting purely beautiful singing may well have left disappointed – a number of the cast suffered pitch issues at several points in the evening – but it was so much more than that. This was an evening in which the magic of Strauss’ score came alive in a wonderful and visually ravishing staging.

Karita Mattila’s Ariadne was not the conventional statuesque heroine. Hers was a powerhouse of frustration, someone who was volatile and full of emotions. Vocally it took the voice a little time to settle – ‘ein schönes war’ was a bit bumpy, the emissions not quite even and the register breaks were clear throughout the evening. There was also some saggy intonation. And yet, hers was one of the most moving assumptions of Ariadne’s music I have heard. There is something very special in her singing, the unique alchemy that she finds in words and music combined to produce something very special indeed. The top of the voice still has that remarkable combination of lunar beauty and duskiness that is her trademark and La Mattila gave us singing of great tonal loveliness. This was in no way a conventional Ariadne, and nobody present was ever expecting that from her, but it was a very special one and one that will stay long in the memory. In the prologue Mattila gave us some great comic timing and completely inhabited the character of the prima donna without ever spilling into caricature.

I had the pleasure of hearing the wonderful Nova Scotian soprano Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta in Carsen’s production in Berlin. There she was irresistible, completely managing to combine words, music and physicality in the most wonderful way. Tonight I felt she was perhaps a little more contained dramatically, but then Loy’s spare staging also doesn’t really give her much to work with. That said she was vocally terrific – sheer ease above the stave, taking endless phrases in single breaths combined with a winning stage personality. The tenderness that she found in ‘ein Augenblick ist wenig’ was utterly captivating. Roberto Saccà’s Bacchus was far from the barker that we are used to hearing in this piece, where one is concerned that the tenor will make it to the end of the duet. Instead he gave us singing of beauty if with a little tightness of tone. It’s not the biggest voice but it was used entirely musically. The Composer lies a little high for Ruxandra Donose now and she was frequently under the note. She sang with great tenderness but was slightly underpowered for the size of the house. She is a fine singer and gave me great pleasure in Berlin but tonight it felt that she was perhaps not at her very best.

The remainder of the cast demonstrated deeply impressive depths of casting. When one has singers of the calibre of the wonderful Karen Cargill as Dryade and Ed Lyon as the Tanzmeister, it is clear that assumptions of the supporting cast would be superb. And they most certainly were. Cargill gave us a beautifully fruity and warm Dryade, complimented nicely by the bright and easy soprano of Sofia Fomina as Najade (surely a Zerbinetta in the making). Lyon’s Tanzmeister was elegantly sung although Thomas Allen’s Musiklehrer was a little too gruff. Markus Werba’s grainy-toned Harlekin blended nicely with his cast-mates and he also gave us a fine ‘Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen’, delightfully phrased. Christoph Quest’s Haushofmeister was nicely sarcastic, in just the right way.

Antonio Pappano’s conducting was nicely unobtrusive. It didn’t draw undue attention to itself and was fluent enough. He pushed forward frequently but there were times where I wished that he’d luxuriate a bit more. The final duet was one place where he I felt he could have pushed forward a little more as tension came dangerously close to sagging. Otherwise, it was a decent enough reading if not revelatory. The orchestra was on reliable form.

Christof Loy’s staging is a known quantity now and Loy came back to personally supervise the revival. There were times where I felt he could have made more of the Personenregie, such as in Zerbinetta’s aria, but otherwise he managed to perfectly encapsulate the bustling atmosphere of the prologue with its clash of egos and the beauty of the opera. The sets (Herbert Murauer) are of course deeply impressive but the beauty (that word again) of the starlit final scene is deeply memorable, much like the performance within it was tonight.

This was a glorious interpretation of Strauss’ opera and a fine tribute to him in his anniversary year. It was capped by a stunning interpretation of the title role by a singer who never gives us less than all of her considerable resources. Yet it was more than that, she was surrounded by a cast of superb singer-actors who gave us an evening of sheer magic.

Ariadne ROH

 

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