The Knight of the Burning Pestle broke the fourth wall, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg put musical convention and taste under the spotlight, and White Christmas was a musical about putting on a musical. There is a touch of all of these elements in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, and it is a tribute to the composer’s genius that he could so boldly explore the competition between high and low art, while simultaneously producing a piece that is so beautifully rounded in its own right.
One senses that Christof Loy’s 2002 staging for the Royal Opera House, now enjoying its third revival, works far better than it strictly should. There is no obvious reason why the prologue should be set in an hotel, but the choice of setting does bring certain visual advantages. The scene begins in a posh lobby before a lift takes us down one level by seeing the entire ground floor rise to reveal what lies beneath. The slickness of the movement is instantly appealing, and finds a pleasing parallel with the descent to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold. The basement, with its makeshift dressing rooms and Spartan feel, then proves effective because it reveals how the artists are subservient to their wealthy masters.
The opera proper takes places in an intriguing area.It could be a hall or function room in a hotel, yet surely not the modern hotel of the prologue. Similarly, the set is framed suggesting we are looking at a theatre stage, and yet the room’s paintings clearly appear on a permanent wall that has doors running through it, rather than a backcloth.
If, however, all this feels just a little confusing, the space itself, filled with candles, is highly attractive. The wall paintings, depicting the island of Naxos, are in the style of Claude Lorrain or Poussin, but a screen depicting a Monet then falls in front of these, and when the set opens out again we are confronted with minimalist, bright blue walls. This could represent Ariadne’s, or perhaps the composer’s, metaphorical journey from the ancient to modern, or it could depict how the princess’s mind undergoes a Dantean-style expedition from hell through purgatory to heaven.
Overall, the sets and direction complement Strauss’s music well, as does Antonio Pappano’s sensitive and insightful conducting of the score. The composer got all of the overt humour associated with combining high and low art out of the way in the prologue, and the opera itself explores how to combine and juxtapose different musical styles to good effect. The ‘joke’ is the fact that such disparate elements do work so well together to create a coherent whole, and that such an iconic story can be enhanced by introducing fresh ideas.
For the most part the stagecraft is intelligent, and there are many telling details. For example, when the troupe first appears in the opera, one actor suggestively pulls at Dryad’s tie, suggesting that they are there to transform the whole world rather than just one person’s attitudes. There are, however, times when some of the jumping about seems a little pedestrian, and when the movement could do with being just a little slicker and more outrageous. Dramatically, the piece is quite intimate and so audience members a long way from the action may discover that some of the impact is lost, but vocally distance should be no problem as so many voices cut through the air with spellbinding clarity.
The standout performance during the prologue comes from Ruxandra Donose, whose mezzo-soprano proves vibrant and rich, while in the opera itself it is Karita Mattila who shines. There is a beautiful maturity and resonance in her sound, and her portrayal of Ariadne is sensitive enough to make us believe in, and hence feel for, the character, and yet bold enough to give her a goddess-like monumentality. Roberto Saccà is strong and spirited as Bacchus, while Jane Archibald, with a voice of beauty, cleanness and purity, is also exceptional. At the very top of her register she sometimes adopts a much gentler sound that, in the context, generates a sense of ethereal perfection.
Ariadne auf Naxos is ultimately, however, an ensemble piece and surrounding these central performances are a plethora of other highly polished ones. These include Thomas Allen as the Music Master, Jihoon Kim as Lackey, Ed Lyon as the Dancing Master, and Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth as Naiad, Dryad and Echo.
Ariadne auf Naxos will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 from 7.30pm on 12 July 2014.