Review: Staatsoper Ariadne auf Naxos

Last night I stood in line and got into Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, performed by the Wiener Staatsoper. I had a parterre standing room seat, so the view and the sound was incredible. I can say from the beginning that with a plot like that of Ariadne auf Naxos I always fear that the balance of comedy and seriousness will be off. However, I found that this production had the perfect mix of comedy mixed in due to Zerbinetta's band undergirded by serious questions about love, fidelity, and artistic temperament.

Here is a link to the synopsis:

Here is the cast list:

  • Jeffrey Tate | Dirigent
  • Filippo Sanjust | Regie
  • Filippo Sanjust | Ausstattung
  • Alexander Pereira | Der Haushofmeister
  • Stephanie Houtzeel | Der Komponist
  • Ian Storey | Der Tenor (Bacchus)
  • Daniela Fally | Zerbinetta
  • Camilla Nylund | Primadonna (Ariadne)
  • Jochen Schmeckenbecher | Ein Musiklehrer
  • N.N. | Ein Offizier
  • Herwig Pecoraro | Ein Tanzmeister
  • Gerhard Reiterer | Ein Perückenmacher
  • Marcus Pelz | Ein Lakai
  • Clemens Unterreiner | Harlekin
  • Peter Jelosits | Scaramuccio
  • Wolfgang Bankl | Truffaldin
  • Benjamin Bruns | Brighella
  • Ileana Tonca | Najade
  • Juliette Mars | Dryade
  • Ildikó Raimondi | Echo
I will discuss the set and costume design followed by the singing; I will then address the staging/interpretation as this is what most struck me about the piece.

The picture is small,
but gives an impression
The set design for each of the two separate acts was ingenious, but they were also tied subtly together. The first act depicted a wealthy apartment on two levels. The upper level stretched back through a variety of tall "walls" with candelabras lit upon them. This offered textured depth to the set. In the foreground there was a room off stage left for Zerbinetta and one up an ornate spiral staircase for the Primadonna. Occasionally the action took place on the upper level between these two, but the important action between the main characters always came center stage into the lower area that was like a preparation area for the performers. This is where almost all of the Composer's action and Zerbinetta's action occurred, along with some of their close compatriots (the duets between the Composer and his Teacher, between the Composer and Zerbinetta, and as the two bands try to reconcile with the master's demands and between themselves). The light was low over the whole scene, a suffused yellow-orange (suggesting candelight, most likely).

Later, with Bacchus,
without the Grecian walls
The second act began in a sort of Grecian temple seemingly either around, a part of, or inside of a cave on the abandoned island of, of course, Naxos. Temple steps marked the center of the stage, with the cavelike surroundings behind and to the side. Finally, The two Grecian walls on either side were marked each by a balcony. This set the scene for most of Ariadne's action to occur laying or standing on the stairs while Zerbinetta and her compatriots moving in and around the stairs or watching from the balconies as they attempt to cheer her from her sorrows. Later in the act the Grecian walls leave the stage, leaving the stairs and rocks alone on stage with the silhouetted ship's mast, rocks, and Bacchus' figure in the background. As he comes forward, the action remains center stage on the stairs until Ariadne and Bacchus leave in love, walking into the distance, stars come out against the deep blue sky, and white cloth falls with Zerbinetta in tableaux. Throughout most of this second act a yellowish light also pervaded, tying the two acts together. The costuming was essentially expectable and fairly simple, but this simplicity allowed focus where it was due and was not distracting.

The singing for this work was great. The whole cast was full of energy and the more difficult sections were had projection, vivacity, and expression. Also, the artists remained throughout the performance in good ensemble, all working and playing off of each other. The supporting characters had great character voices. The Composer's Teacher was a rich baritone, the Dance Master a classic character tenor voice, and the Comedia company members in the second act were very convincing in their revelry. Finally, the trio of nymphs sang beautifully, mixing their three different voices to produce a light but full sound with an otherworldly effect.

Camilla Nylund, as Primadonna/Ariadne, in the first act managed to remain restrained, not demonstrating her potential. In the second act she opened with, however, incredible power, emotion, and endurance as she sang through ten minutes of longing despair for Theseus. This power, and level, consistent tone only increased as she later hailed Bacchus as Hermes, presaging her death. Finally, a bit of the hollow, crying ring left the voice and it soared as she began to turn to Bacchus and find new love in him. The role isn't meant to be flashy, and Nylund didn't try to make it so, rather, she acted the part well and had the endurance to play the whole role consistently and beautifully.

Ian Storey has a very unique voice. If I heard most tenors sing as he does I would think they were gifted with a sizable voice but attempting to push it beyond its means, substituting ringing cut for power. Mr. Storey has, however, made a good run out of singing very heavy (Wagner) opera. His credits do mention lyric roles in Italian opera. I question whether the voice has quite the ring and freedom for those roles. In the role of Bacchus however, his voice was appropriate. The role does not rest on a very high tessitura or on key high notes, but rather on a very large, sustained tone in the mid-range (As most heldentenor roles do). He fulfilled this admirably, making quite an impression standing with staff and billowing red robes. He was appropriately veritably God-like - booming voice and flowing cloak.

Sophie Koch, by whom I have a recording of Schumman's Myrten but who I otherwise knew little about, impressed me greatly as the Composer. First of all, she convincingly played and looked the part of a rash young man obsessed with art. In a few trouser roles androgyny or femininity are desirable, but for the most part, the portrayal rests largely on the ability of the singer to convincingly seem male. Sophie Koch not only pulled this off, but infused her performance with Romantic energy. Her rapid changes in emotion were believable, from outrage to despair to inspiration to love and back to despair. Her voice was consistent throughout and added to the charged energy of her acting.

Finally, we come to Daniela Fally as Zerbinetta. Fally played a somewhat unreadable Zerbinetta. When in front of her band she was vibrant, light, and gay; when watching other action was going on, she was a quiet figure timidly intrigued; when passionate, she was as convincingly a Romantic as the Composer. Her voice is smaller, less designed to bellow over the orchestra at peak moments, than the other singers, particularly of the second act. Strauss structured the music with this in mind, however. She rarely needs to push the voice to drama, as most of it comes out in her own Coloratura moments. Her aria in the second act, perhaps the showpiece of the opera, was done with very accurate coloratura and inspiration, opening questions about the first act. It is these questions on which I focused my analysis of the interpretation of the work as a whole by the company.

Ariadne auf Naxos mixes a serious opera with the comedy of Zerbinetta's band. Ariadne auf Naxos mixes a serious opera with the comedy of Zerbinetta's band. It could very easily be a comedy where two very different kinds of shows are put together unexpectedly, sarcastic melodrama ensues as the young composer bemoans his fate and the "destruction" of his art, he is fleetingly toyed with by Zerbinetta before returning to despair, and finally proves through the love of Ariadne and Bacchus that, in fact, moving on to the next man and not being faithful too long is the solution. This would be a fun show, but have little deeper meaning. The Staatsoper production gave me an entirely different impression. The Composer is obsessed with true, enduring love and seeks to portray such a woman in his original plan for Ariadne auf Naxos. He then is in despair because not only  is his art called into question, but his moral bearing, as well. Zerbinetta then has her duet with him where she reveals ideas just as Romantic as his. In this staging of the opera, I found this to be the most important moment. The duet was amazingly passionate and very genuine. Rather than toying with the Composer, it appeared that Zerbinetta was falling for him and yearning for his ideals. Ultimately, the composer still fears what Zerbinetta and her comedians will do to his work of Art. He has a higher stake, now, however. Not only is he worried whether Zerbinetta will convert his opera seria into a comedy, but whether Zerbinetta herself will revert to a carefree flirt. In the second act, Fally convincingly plays her part and seems to really be instructing Ariadne to move on to Bacchus. Indeed, it would seem that their genuine love at the end demonstrates she is correct.

We're left wondering, however, whether she actually believes what she has instructed. We don't know what will happen to Ariadne and Bacchus, one of them might move on to the next God, as Zerbinetta instructs, and the seemingly good advice would just lead to an endless cycle. Zerbinetta's tableaux and the end, while not explicitly suggesting an interpretation, left me to wonder how much of her character's carefree attitude in the second act was just the same mask she had been wearing all her life, and if underneath that, she still held her yearning for romantic, enduring love she shared with the composer in her heart.


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