The genius of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos lies in its ability to explore explicitly the competition between high and low art, while producing a piece that is so beautifully rounded in its own right. Within this, many of the opera’s moments are designed to have maximum impact, whether this derives from experiencing heart-wrenching despair or side-splitting comedy. The same might be said of Christof Loy’s 2002 staging for the Royal Opera House, revived here by Julia Burbach, which works around a series of areas that are each intended to generate a number of feelings and associations.
The Prologue begins in the posh, spacious lobby of a hotel (presumably the rich Master owns it and entertains his guests there), and this provides a stark contrast with the basement that appears beneath as the entire ground floor rises. With its Spartan feel, the latter area proves effective because it reveals how the artists are subservient to their wealthy masters. It also suggests that before this current debacle The Composer and opera singers were deemed to be slightly higher than the players as the former’s dressing rooms are permanent areas, while the latter’s are makeshift. The basement also carries more metaphorical connotations for the initial descent of the lift to it finds a pleasing parallel with the journey to Nibelheim in Das Rheingold. Similarly, The Composer’s rattling of the lift’s gates at the end of the scene is an excellent way of revealing how ultimately he is a prisoner, no better off perhaps than Florestan.
The Opera proper takes place in an intriguing room, possibly Georgian in style. It is framed, suggesting that we are looking at a theatre stage, but the paintings, depicting the island of Naxos in the style of Claude Lorrain or Poussin, clearly appear on a permanent wall that has doors running through it, rather than a backcloth. If this does not strictly make sense, it hardly matters for by the time the area is filled with candles it proves highly atmospheric.
During Zerbinetta’s choosing of Harlequin over the other players, a screen depicting a Monet is inserted, and when the set opens out again we are confronted with deep 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 (stars appear on the wall at the end).
If the staging is designed for maximum impact, by the same token it is at its weakest when the intended effects do not quite come off. Ariadne’s encounter with Bacchus takes place over a dining table, and at one point they are seen reaching for each other from opposite ends of this incredibly long structure. It feels false and, instead of symbolising the interaction between the pair, it may have been better to have actually shown it.
Making his Royal Opera debut, Lothar Koenigs’ conducting is beautifully balanced, while the singing is excellent. The standout performance during the Prologue comes from Ruxandra Donose, whose mezzo-soprano is lively and engaging, while in the Opera itself it is Karita Mattila who really shines. The strength, feeling, resonance and control that she brings to her sound are truly remarkable, and her portrayal of Ariadne is sensitive enough to make us believe in the character, yet bold enough to give her a goddess-like monumentality. Robert Dean Smith is an excellent Bacchus, his tenor feeling both strong and sensitive, while Jane Archibald’s performance of Zerbinetta’s key aria proves a definite highlight as the beauty, cleanness and purity in her sound all come to the fore.
The voices of Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth as Naiad, Dryad and Echo respectively work very well together, and throughout Howarth brings just the right sound to Echo’s lines. As Harlequin, Truffaldino, Scaramuccio and Brighella respectively, Nikolay Borchev, Jeremy White, Ji-Min Park and Paul Schweinester are in good voice, and although the movements required of them are hardly ground breaking they bring a greater degree of slickness to them than has been seen in some revivals. Sir Thomas Allen as the Music Master and Norbert Ernst as the Dancing Master are also in fine form during the Prologue.
Thanks to the production and performances, this is not an interpretation of Ariadne in which the Prologue is merely a comedy and the Opera simply a demonstration of how high and low art can be combined. On the contrary, the way in which The Composer and Zerbinetta build up an affinity and understanding in the Prologue is so moving that their attraction feels similar to that of Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre. The only difference is that the obstacle to their happiness is not the needs of gods, but the fact that they are at opposite ends of the artistic spectrum!
Similarly, in the Opera Matilla’s dubious glances towards Zerbinetta do not only reflect Ariadne’s own doubts, but also The Prima Donna’s disdain at having to share the stage with this type of performer. Again, during the quartet of men’s first number Brighella changes his shoes and dances centre-stage as if this Comedian is determined to steal the show from the others. The steps taken in this direction, however, are never pushed too far or come across as hammed. Indeed, when the other characters leave to let Bacchus woo Ariadne alone and lead her to the heavens, it does seem as if some genuine union of art forms has taken place. Ariadne and The Prima Donna do not simply exit the stage. They go to a higher realm that one feels has actually been created by the Opera.