Royal Opera @ Covent Garden, London, 22, 26, 28 June, 1, 5, 7, 9 July 2004
Of all the operas that Richard Strauss wrote with Hugo von Hofmannsthal in the early twentieth century, Ariadne auf Naxos had by far the longest gestation period.
Composition started in 1911 with Strauss setting to music the "opera" part of the evening, based on the tale of Ariadne, who has been abandoned on the island of Naxos by Theseus.
Originally, the opera was intended to follow the performance of a Molière play given by the German theatre director Max Reinhardt. However, the evening was a disaster, mainly because of its excessive length.
So in 1916 Strauss and Hofmannsthal added a Prologue, which describes how the performance of Ariadne comes to take place at the same time as a show by a commedia dell'arte troupe in a rich patron's house.
The Prologue added the trouser role of the Composer of Ariadne, who became perhaps the most interesting character. The only problem with the work is the imbalance between the Prologue, which lasts 45 minutes, and the Opera, which lasts 85 minutes.
The latter can have the occasional longueurs, but in the Royal Opera's first revival of Christof Loy's lavish 2002 production, Sir Colin Davis managed to sweep the evening along with astonishing energy and vitality, bringing to life the many colours and nuances of Strauss' remarkable score.
The Prologue was particularly invigorating. As the Composer, the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham amply demonstrated why she has made such a name for herself in this role. She clearly enjoyed the quirkiness of Loy's modern production, and took no time at all to warm up into a most tremendously giving performance. Covent Garden audiences are lucky to be able to see her, as her Strauss interpretations are deservedly world-renowned. It was impossible to be unmoved by her duet with Zerbinetta, head dancer of the troupe, in which the two realise they share an inner melancholy.
As the Music Master, Dale Duesing was less impressive vocally than Thomas Allen when the production was new, but he still inhabited the character well. He was particularly good when persuading the Composer to cut his music by half to allow the commedia dell'arte troupe time to perform. Christoph Quest returned to play The Major Domo, an acting role which suited his abilities down to the ground. English tenor John Graham-Hall threw himself into the part of the Dancing Master, and although his is not a great Strauss tenor, that hardly matters in this cameo role.
Most surprisingly excellent were the Vilar Young Artists, especially Hubert Francis (An Officer) and Ha Young Lee (Naiad), and the ex-Vilar Grant Doyle makes a welcome and most competent return as Harlequin.
The two lovers of the Opera, Ariadne and Bacchus, were played by Anne Schanewilms and Richard Margison respectively. Schanewilms was extraordinary as Chrysothemis here last year and did not disappoint on her return. Not only was her performance of Es gibt ein Reich incredibly beautiful, but she and Margison did a splendid job of conveying the transcendence of the closing duet. I was unmoved by Margison's performance of Calaf in Turandot last year, but he seemed quite at home in Strauss, and coped well with the off-stage singing.
Crowning it all, the orchestra of the Royal Opera House was more relaxed and giving than in the recent Arabella, and it was a joy to welcome Colin Davis back in what he says is his favourite Strauss opera. Although I can't agree with him, this performance was as persuasive as any you will ever hear.