Theatrical Clutter and Vocal Excellence: Ariadne auf Naxos at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos.

Der Haushofmeister – Maik Solbach
Der Musiklehrer – Josef Wagner
Der Komponist – Angela Brower
Primadonna / Ariadne – Lise Davidsen
Der Tenor / Bacchus – Eric Cutler
Der Offizier – Petter Moen
Der Tanzmeister – Rupert Charlesworth
Der Perückenmacher – Jean-Gabriel Saint Martin
Lakai – Sava Vemić
Zerbinetta – Sabine Devieilhe
Harlekin – Huw Montague Rendall
Scaramuccio – Emilio Pons
Truffaldin – David Shipley
Brighella – Jonathan Abernethy
Najade – Beate Mordal
Dryade – Andrea Hill
Echo – Elena Galitskaya

Orchestre de Paris / Marc Albrecht.
Stage Director – Katie Mitchell.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Saturday, July 14th, 2018. 

Visiting the Théâtre de l’Archevêché always feels such a special experience.  Getting to see world class opera under the Provençal stars is so magical.  In many respects, with its ensemble cast and beguiling combination of comedy, romance and beauty, Ariadne auf Naxos should be an ideal piece for Aix.  Unfortunately, tonight’s staging by Katie Mitchell proved to be extremely problematic.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Some mental alarm bells started ringing when I saw in the program book that additional dialogue had been written for the occasion by the dramaturg and long-time Mitchell collaborator, Martin Crimp.  This consisted of additional words after intermission and just before the opera started from the Haushofmeister, reminding the cast of the Richest Man in Vienna’s instructions, as well as said man’s wife interrupting ‘ein Schönes war’ with some complaints about the piece.  Finally, the man himself gave some feedback on the performance over those magical closing measures.   In doing so, Mitchell and Crimp seem to be trying to solve a problem that doesn’t actually exist – that of reconciling the prelude with the opera.  Further, it demonstrated a seeming complete lack of trust by Mitchell to allow this cast of very fine singing-actors to drive the drama forward, as well as a lack of trust in the piece itself.  Particularly, when the stage was full of extraneous action – the cast setting up the stage during the prologue, Bacchus perambulating the stage with what appeared to be illuminated boxes with a delivery from Domino’s from which he pulled out a gun at one point, as well as the nymphs walking in slow motion.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

The maddening thing about it all was that there is fundamentally a sound idea there.  That is, the stage being split with the audience on one side while the opera took place on the other.  The problem lies in its execution, particularly when Sabine Devieilhe’s ‘großmächtige Prinzessin’ was robbed of its quite considerable impact due to her having to sing it away from the audience in the theatre and instead to the audience of extras at the side of the stage.  Again, it was a neat idea to have the Komponist (here a very feminine young woman) conducting her own music, but the sight of arms waving at the side of the stage distracted from the principals who were actually singing.  With a cast of singing-actors this good at her disposal, Mitchell’s reluctance to trust them meant that the work felt cold and clinical.  Especially so in the prologue where the frisson of tenderness between Zerbinetta and the Komponist(in) just seemed absent.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Even more regrettable because musically there was a very fine performance trying to break through beneath all the extraneous theatrical clutter.  Lise Davidsen was a majestic Ariadne.  I must admit to closing my eyes to appreciate her ‘Schönes war’ and was deeply moved as a result.  There’s something quite magnificent about hearing a voice of this size take flight and soar.  The sound is bright with a steely core.  I’m not quite convinced that the technique is completely finished.  There’s a tendency for it to sag under the note and it sounds as if the support hasn’t quite been optimized to sustain the amplitude of the sound.  Davidsen is without doubt a major talent with serious promise and I look forward to seeing her develop further.  Her Bacchus was Eric Cutler, once again proving himself a Straussian tenor of distinction.  He sang his punishing music as if it were the easiest thing in the world.  Where so many before have run out of gas, he had room to spare.  He was also able to pull back and shade the tone ravishingly.  The final few minutes saw Cutler opening up and soaring on high in the most memorable way.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Sabine Devieilhe’s Zerbinetta was sung in crisply enunciated and clear German.  She had clearly worked very hard on the text, although it did seem that she could have perhaps exploited an even richer palette of tone colours.  That said, she gave us some spectacular singing.  Her ‘großmächtige Prinzessin’ was tremendous – the high E sounding almost impossibly full and easy, the trills neat, and she turned the corners impeccably.  The cleanness of her vocalism was most impressive with some truly remarkable breath control.  I’m sure you can appreciate my frustration that Deveilhe was so let down by Mitchell’s direction, thereby depriving the audience of the full appreciation of her singing.

Angela Brower’s bright, soprano-ish mezzo is ideally matched to the Komponist’s music and her ease throughout the range gave much pleasure.  She had also clearly worked hard on the text.  Her closing ode saw her with easy reach on top, the voice soaring quite wonderfully.  In the remainder of the cast we had a mellifluous trio of nymphs.  Josef Wagner was a masculine and resonant Musiklehrer.  Huw Montague Rendall’s Harlekin was sung in a very handsome baritone with an attractive legato.  Diction in the remainder of the cast wasn’t always impeccable but Zerbinetta’s troupe was very well blended in a way that one doesn’t often hear.

Photo: © Pascal Victor / artcompress

Marc Albrecht led quite a weighty reading, not always sustained by the chamber sonorities of the band nor by the outdoor acoustic – the closing minutes of the prologue felt somewhat thin from the orchestra.  He phrased so much of the opera with love and affection.  The orchestra was on decent form although some of the string intonation was on the raw side at times.  The winds in particular had real personality.

This was a somewhat frustrating evening in the theatre.  Musically, there was so much that was excellent – the principals in particular giving a great deal of pleasure – and the ensemble as a whole featuring some promising young voices.  Frankly, this cast deserved a better staging in which to produce the magic of the piece, despite their clear and absolute commitment to all that was asked of them.  Mitchell’s refusal to trust her cast and the piece itself to drive the work forward and her insistence on adding so much extraneous action, however sound the initial ideas were in principle, meant that the impact of the work and that of the singers was lost in the theatrical clutter.  That said, this is without doubt an Ariadne worth hearing.

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