In Christof Loy’s production – a revival of Royal Opera’s 2002 original – a striking effect is achieved almost immediately as the entrance of the rich host’s house in Vienna is borne aloft to create a two-storey set with the basement underneath where the plans between the rival groups of artists for their respective entertainments are carried out. Ostensibly this is to remind us of the upstairs-downstairs world in which some people commission and others have to serve the life of creative endeavour. However, this device seems somewhat contrived since, after an initial bustle of activity, the upper floor is barely used again. But the double-tier set can also represent symbolically as an embodiment of those divisions in theatrical conventions – between high and low art, comic and tragic, and the ironic, even artificial distance between performers and audience. Indeed this production could point these up further with more knowing wit.
Ruxandra Donose realised the part of the Composer with particular urgency and weight, fully expressing his frustrations as plans for the Opera are altered, and demonstrating that he is no mere pushover. Similarly, Thomas Allen as the Music Master was in wonderful command, perhaps with a more severe mien than he usually bears, but also displaying ability for compromise and wit. As a dramatic foil, Christoph Quest’s Major Domo was amusingly imperious. Among the burlesque troop, Ed Lyon sang and acted with a suave smoothness suitable for this louche character. Along with the four comedians, who then took the pantomime parts in the Opera, they countered the conceit of the opera company. Matching this in the Opera, Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth were vocally well integrated in their satirical take on the parts of Naiad, Dryad and Echo.
Karita Mattila brought Wagnerian breadth to Ariadne. One could hear echoes of Birgit Nilsson in her dramatic singing, and even in the haunted tone of her voice as she awoke; this could have been Brünnhilde being stirred from sleep on the mountain top. Mattila succeeded in representing Ariadne’s grief-stricken madness because of her single-minded application to the intensity of the character’s feelings, whether lamenting her lost life with Theseus or welcoming new romantic ardour with Bacchus. Appropriately there was the mark of a heldentenor in Roberto Saccà’s account of the latter part, though slightly marred by a raw veneer in tone.
Jane Archibald showed not only admirable vocal athleticism as Zerbinetta, but also more considerable tenderness and depth than the mere soubrette this role is usually taken to be, particularly in her vouchsafing in the Prologue that she feels loneliness, thereby aligning her situation with that of Ariadne in the Opera. As such, Archibald raised the part to considerable significance – more or less bridging the serious and comic worlds at loggerheads within it.
The cast was more consistently impressive than the chamber-sized orchestra in the pit. There was nothing especially wrong as such, and certainly there were some delicious sonorities, most notably in the introduction to the Opera section. Moreover, Antonio Pappano wittily drew from the players the impression of mock anger or Wagnerian gravity at the relevant moments which are part and parcel of the self-conscious dramatic effects Strauss utilises. But less convincing was his inclination to draw back just as the music was gaining in momentum, and therefore not maintaining as much dramatic purpose and tension as ideal.
The final duet between Ariadne and Bacchus in particular seemed like an anti-climax as a result, and not helped that visually the scene was somewhat lacklustre. The set was bathed in the dark blue of the night sky, speckled with points of light presumably meant to be stars. In the middle of the stage was a long dining table which anchored the stage in a purely domestic context. Perhaps the director intended this conclusion to be deliberately low key, but something more lavish – either sincere or ironic – could surely have been devised which would cohere with Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s explicit deconstruction of the dramatic arts.
If the production may not have finally decided what its stance is in respect of these matters, there is still much else to enjoy.
- Four further performances until 13 July
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk