Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange thing. Part light comedy (Prologue), part drama (The Opera) and at times a weird mixture of both (The Opera, again). Strauss seems to be playing with our expectations of what those forms of entertainment mean and what they can offer us of value.
The opera (I mean, Ariadne of Naxos, not Act II,”the Opera” from the opera, Ariadne auf Naxos) subtly morphs as it goes along. Just when one is getting used to a few sustained moments of pathos or drama, three singing comedians or Zerbinetta the flirty singer-cum-actress wander in to change the mood. It is a little like being on a seesaw. The comedic interventions bring the seesaw of mood bumping down to earth. But as with a seesaw, look a little further beyond where we think we are sitting and we can see someone raised higher, someone with a truly heightened view.
Up alone, raised aloft, this someone is Ariadne, and too this someone was, last night, Karita Mattila. In her giving of the role there was depth, and dramatic wisdom. Conviction too. Her acting was believable (she began act two with two touching deep sighs) which made her Ariadne, who we know to be merely a confection of imagination – she is a person playing a character playing a character – all the more moving. Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s magic is to make us forget all artifice and to feel that Ariadne has stepped out of myth into reality. It is Mattila’s magic to make us feel this had been achieved. She declaims she is merely human, and Strauss brings this crisis of self with all its hopes and langours to us.
Easy for Mattila to act the Diva in the Prologue. Fluffy slippers, huge Holly Golightly-esque sunglasses, a dressing gown and some snarky comments, a few spats and huffs. The signifiers director Christof Loy has chosen easy to understand. The dramatic payoff comes in act II, The Opera. Here is a woman transformed. Mournful in black, Mattila donning (in perhaps the most beautiful manner I have seen) a mantilla, had Ariadne pinning for her lost love.
Vocally she soared. When she began to sing – she held us hushed. Spellbound one might say.
We cheered at the end. Mattila seemed moved by this – taken aback by the sound of our ovations. Easy for us to understand. Here had been a sustained prayer to the gods sung in front of us, too briefly, movingly. Loy’s sets matched the music. There was Transfiguration. As the music stirred and grew we saw a star-strewn sky evolve from the back wall. The trompe l’oeil backdrop of gardens, Arcadian temples, pruned cypress vanished. The beyond beckoned.
Then, “Plaudite amici, comedia finita est”. Exeunt omnes. The mortals leave through one door, Jeremy White‘s Truffaldino leaving comedy beautifully behind with but a backwards glance. He leaves the stage, which now is empty except for Ariadne. The Diva has gone. Mattila, truly Ariadne, advances slowly, thrilingly to the threshold, and vanishes, to become memory. An Ariadne not of Naxos, but of eternity. Tod, und Verklärung: Mattila’s magic, to make us see a woman’s journey from despair to joy and from joy to hope, and from hope into something transcendental.
The curtain falls. And we applaud.
I wasn’t a great fan of Loy’s version on my first viewing last year. This time around I was much more amenable to its devices. Indeed, more than merely amenable: I was totally convinced at the end: Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s creation had been done full justice. One imagines “the patron” who commissioned the entertainment of “The Opera” well pleased, (but we know he, like the whole affair has been forgotten. As it moves from comedy into profound transfiguration, we know The Opera is for us alone). Strauss may have been “a first-rate second-rate composer”, but his was a unique operatic talent. Loy finds the magic and the uncanny sublime within the work, and it is beautiful.
Many of the cast returned for this year. I was especially fond of Thomas Allen‘s Music Master: long experience of the ROH stage showed. Vocally robust, nice diction too,and of course as always, good acting. Ruxandra Donose as the Composer might have been having difficulties with the high lying push for the mezzo voice. It seemed to me that vibrato/”shake” was there in great measure, at the expense of some tone and placement. Nevertheless, she showed the petulance (and moroseness!) of the character well.
What a pleasant surprise to discover Nikolay Borchev as Harlequin. His is a ringing baritone with a really pleasant tone. His dancing with Zerbinetta could have used a tiny bit more work but that was no big deal.
Big deal though was Zerbinetta herself. What a difference Jane Archibald brought this year, compared with last. This time, masterly shading of tone and colouring. It was a perfect fit of text, character and singing. Little sighs, semi-sung giggles fleshed out this flighty, flirty girl, and a coloratura that was truly effortless and a pleasure to hear sealed the package. Vocal fireworks were all present and thrillingly correct but more than that, Archibald never did tricks just to show off. It was a classy performance through and through. The opera was worth watching just for her.
The three nymphs (Naiad, Sofia Fomina, Dryad, Karen Cargill, Echo Kiandra Howarth) blended well, and touched the beauty of Strauss’s wonderful writing for the female voice, but I wasn’t totally sent away into rapture. It didn’t help that two or three coughing fits broke out just at the most beautiful moment of their piece (“Töne, töne, süße Stimme) either.
I must point out Norbet Ernst as the Dancing Master. It was a small part but he made the most of it. He has lovely acting skills, and he gave us a choreographer who was wonderfully camp too. Splendid. Robert Dean Smith‘s Bacchus had a bit of an American accent but his heart was well in the piece. He worked especially well with Mattila, the two having genuine affection it seemed.
Mattila herself: singing with poise, with grief, with introspection. This was singing as communicative act – emotion engendering emotion and acting well fitted to the message. We were beguiled, some transported. I was most grateful to have heard and seen craft and skill bring character to life.
Ariadne also has the potential to be musically ravishing. From Lothar Koenigs in the pit, there was nuance, a sensitivity alive to comedy, a sense of spaciousness to let the drama unfurl, but the sumptuousness ideally present for those high lyrical moments wasn’t totally there. Regardless, the whole evening was of very high quality, and a reminder of what the Royal Opera House can do at its best.