The Opera, meanwhile, was coupled in 1916 with a Prologue in which Ariadne becomes the subject of a post-dinner 'interlude': one whose cast must perform simultaneously with a dance troupe, so as to not to encroach on the fireworks display. How singers and dancers overcome their mutual antipathy is the subject of the Prologue – its pitting of art for its own sake against entertainment pure and simple encapsulated by the poles of the Composer and Zerbinetta. Their lengthy monologues, out of which comes recognition of an unexpected emotional bond, are made focal points of a mini-drama – where the art is/versus life quandary has been absorbed into the behind-the-scenes backbiting of those whose status as lackeys of authority is variously wrestled with and casually acknowledged.
Strauss's and Hofmannsthal's masterstroke was to have realised (in both senses!) this dichotomy in a piece which, though composed after the Opera, informs and influences its content and reception in ways other than those visibly apparent on stage. Essentially it is a drama of three parts: the soulful lamenting of Ariadne countered at first incongruously by the dance troupe, then with increasing candour by Zerbinetta – her studied nonchalance falling away to reveal a woman who envies the loyalty shown by Ariadne to so misplaced a degree. In turn, it is Ariadne who seems implicitly to draw upon Zerbinetta's resilience as she becomes increasingly enraptured by the imploring Bacchus: not quite the harbinger of the 'after-life' she had envisaged for herself, but none the less desirable for that.
Linking these two scenically removed but subjectively interlinked halves, then, is Zerbinetta – whose soprano writing is among the most taxing, in its frequent coloratura, in all Strauss. And, following her impressive cameo as the Fiakermilli in Arabella, Diana Damrau did not disappoint. Her soubrette leanings in the Prologue were effortlessly inflected, while the journey of self-discovery brought about by her lengthy aria in the Opera was conceived with exquisite attention to expressive detail – leaving an impression that not even wild applause set in motion by the inevitable claque could dispel.
It helped that her principal counterparts in each half was on such fine form. Susan Graham got to the heart of the Composer's soul-searching and self-absorption – and with enough pathos so as not to descend into caricature: the quality of an impulsive but vulnerable creative figure being palpably conveyed. Hard to believe that the Anne Schwanewilms of the Prima Donna send-up in the Prologue was the Ariadne whose noble bearing and stately demeanour made much of a role static even by the standards of opera seria which it at times seems gently to parody. In both instances, emotional interaction with Zerbinetta was the more touching for being unexpected and understated.
There’s not much scope for the male lead in this opera, but Richard Margison sang lustily as Bacchus: a role almost mundane in its recourse to operatic conventions, but effecting the right theatrical 'happy ending'. Elsewhere, the smaller roles were never less than adequate: in particular, Dale Duesing's exasperated Music Master (with an appearance somewhere between Sergiu Celibidache and Sir Les Patterson!), and Christoph Quest's boorish Major Domo; while the Naiad of Ha Young Lee (currently a participant in the Vilar Young Artists Programme) gave notice of a significant voice in the making.
Like the much later Capriccio, Ariadne is a 'chamber opera' dealing with intimate human emotion. And Christof Loy's production – first seen in 2002 – captures that intimacy without ever being cloying in its underscoring of stage action. The 'below stairs' setting for the Prologue ideally captured the frantic activity unseen beneath the unruffled facade of a stately residence, then the drawing-room ambience for the Opera allowed Schwanewilms space to 'lose herself' as she elegantly endures the pangs of heartbreak. Not so sure about the dining table in the last scene, around which Ariadne and Bacchus gradually resolve – or rather put aside – their mutual incomprehension, but if the purpose of Herbert Murauer's designs is to confirm the Classical elegance of the music, so much the better.
Not that such a quality was in doubt, given the presence of Sir Colin Davis. Strauss is not, admittedly, a composer with whom he has regularly been associated either in the concert hall or opera house, though he conducted Ariadne at Covent Garden in 1987 and at Sadler's Wells in 1961, and his deft control over the musical ebb and flow pointed up the work's Mozartian inheritance more clearly than ever. Lower string tone sounded a touch thin at times, but the harmonic clarity brought to the instrumental opening of the Opera and the sparing accompaniment to Ariadne's scena made one appreciate just how less can be more when it comes to Strauss's orchestration in the context of his operas. Perhaps it is that feeling of effortless which explains the enduring affection felt towards a stage-work whose unassuming modesty conceals potent expressive qualities relevant for all time.
- The performance reviewed above took place on 26 June; the first night was on 22 June
- Remaining performances: July 1, 5, 7 & 9
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