Ostensibly, the story of Ariadne auf Naxos would appear to pick up exactly where Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur left off.
Strauss’ opera his third Hofmannsthal collaboration is infinitely more complicated than that, however, and it is a measure of Christof Loy’s supremely elegant production, revived here by Andrew Sinclair, that the delivery maintains a sense of dramatic momentum and emotional clarity.
Its curious provenance, the subject of a lengthy correspondence between composer and librettist, is reflected in the nature of the piece itself. We begin with a Prologue, in which a Composer and a shambolic commedia dell’arte troupe conflict over the evening’s entertainment in a Viennese palace, before being introduced to the Opera itself, in which the two attempt to collaborate in a retelling of the Ariadne myth. As with other literary precedents, these layers of intentional artifice make profound comments on symbolic and commercial culture.
It is now a famous opera-within-an-opera formula, but this particular staging, at this particular house, acquired an additional saga or metanarrative, if you will when the leading soprano Deborah Voigt was allegedly dismissed from the 2004 revival on account of her weight. Now famously slimmed, Voigt returns to the titular role; she is a consummate Straussian and Ariadne has become something of a calling-card in her repertoire, so the hype surrounding this run was not simply as a result of off-stage shenanigans. Expectations ran high.
Loy’s staging takes an upstairs/downstairs approach to the Prologue setting: wealthy guests (shrewd caricatures of my fellow audience members) arrive for the evening’s entertainment on a rising platform as we are introduced to the chaos behind the scenes. Kristine Jepson makes a superb Composer, who she plays as artist-hero, tortured by creative genius, and sings with equal conviction. Jepson is joined by Thomas Allen and Alan Oke in the roles of Music Master and Dancing Master respectively, both sporting John Tavener hairdos and both delivering brief but memorable performances.
For the Opera itself, we are relocated to an upper room, with walls decorated in trompe l’oeil landscapes, where Ariadne languishes amongst an artful arrangement of candles. And so to the leading lady. Voigt had sounded hard and somewhat abrasive in the Prologue but despite some intonation wobbles during Ariadne’s first lament, she appeared to mellow as the second act wore on, and certainly her drama and diction could not be faulted. Her climactic end scene, accompanied by Robert Dean Smith’s impressive Bacchus, proved a fitting highlight.
Less successful was Gillian Keith’s performance as Zerbinetta, a role debut that is certainly gutsy but perhaps a little premature. Whilst she played the part of flouncing soubrette well enough, this characterisation overflowed into lightweight vocals, and the fiendish runs of coloratura in her showcase aria, in particular, sounded thin and ill-defined. Elsewhere, however, a number of Jette Parker Young Artists made fine impressions in the lesser commedia roles.
Perhaps the greatest praise should be lavished on the pit. Multiple textures ranging from solo piano, gently nudging along the vocal line, to Bacchic tambourines and clarinet cascades were subtly realised, and the recently knighted Mark Elder conducted his relatively small ensemble (little more than a chamber orchestra) with verve and sensitivity.