First seen as part of a 1912 double bill, Ariadne auf Naxos was revised and reshaped as Europe plunged into the carnage of the First World War. Strauss was profoundly relieved when his son, Franz, was declared unfit for military service. But his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had already served as a reservist when the now familiar version of their backstage comedy on high and low art premiered in Vienna in 1916, four days after the assassination of the prime minister in the dining room of a hotel a few minutes' walk from the opera house.
For all the champagne fizz of Zerbinetta's coloratura, the histrionics of the idealistic young Composer whose tragedy must accommodate the beery quartets of a commedia dell'arte troupe at the whim of his patron, and the title character's slide from morose self-abnegation to erotic abandon, Ariadne auf Naxos was not created in a bubble. The Great War is there in the background. Yet the conflict referenced in Katharina Thoma's Glyndebourne production is the Battle of Britain.
In the Prologue, while the London Philharmonic Orchestra weaves its skittish, peppery magic under Vladimir Jurowski, the Music Master (Thomas Allen) pulls back the curtains to reveal a country house commandeered as an army billet. Bunting has been put up for the evening's entertainment. The dysjunct between this Ensa-style Ariadne and the German text, with its references to "the richest man in Vienna", is immediately awkward. The firework display becomes an aerial dogfight and the interval curtain closes on a shell-shocked Composer (Kate Lindsey), clutching his score like a holy icon.
The opera proper is played out in a makeshift military hospital where the three Nymphs are sadistic nurses, and Zerbinetta (a dry but accurate Laura Claycomb) is strapped into a straitjacket for her sung paean to sexual liberation and brought to orgasm, apparently against her will. There are certainly operas in which coloratura confers hysteria, and it is true that "massage" was favoured as a treatment for hysterics but not, I suspect, during the Battle of Britain. Besides, Zerbinetta is not mad. She's the sanest woman on stage.
Which brings us to Ariadne. Hofmannsthal once remarked that Strauss's wife, Pauline, could be a model for this character. Unfortunately, Soile Isokoski channels a later operatic version of Pauline Strauss, the neurotic, petty heroine of Intermezzo. Though radiantly sung, her Ariadne is more domestic than divine, and her surrender to Sergey Skorokhodov's sturdy Bacchus (a Polish airman) thankfully takes place behind a hospital curtain. It's a poor start to a promising season, especially given the excellence of the orchestral performance and of Lindsey's Composer. A counter-intuitive production of Ariadne auf Naxos can still enchant. One that is so earnest and unsexy cannot.
John Fulljames's production of Rossini's La donna del lago (Royal Opera House, London ****) for the Royal Opera is also hobbled by its framing device. The concept is that of a dialogue between the composer and Walter Scott, author of the poem on which his opera is based. Hence the minor characters of Albina (Justina Gringyte) and Serano (Robin Leggate) double as Rossini and Scott, while the Lady of the Lake herself, Joyce DiDonato's luminous Elena, is unlocked from a curiosity cabinet for the amusement of Scott's circle.
Elena is a fey lassie, melting into the arms of the King of Scotland (Juan Diego Florez) only to melt again in the arms of her true love Malcom (Daniela Barcellona), shrink from the burly clutches of his rival Rodrigo (Michael Spyres) then melt and shrink again, while singing some of Rossini's most poignant, vivacious and difficult arias. Imagine doing needlepoint while lifting a double-decker. Now imagine doing that for more than three hours. DiDonato pulls it off without breaking sweat. Brilliantly supported as she is by Barcellona, Florez and Spyres, this is her show, her vehicle, albeit chauffeured uncharismatically by conductor Michele Mariotti.
Singing aside, this is a horribly high-profile failure. Mention Scott to a Scot and you'll hear a lot of grumbling about the fetishising of tartan. Here Fulljames critiques the author's approach to Scottish history while adding some inflamatory anomalies of his own. While the all-singing, all-raping Highlanders of Rodrigo's rebel army disembowel a ram at the close of Act I, smearing their chests with its blood, Rossini/Albina wheels a hostess trolley on stage, lifts the lid from a silver platter and merrily carves a haggis. That some in the audience assumed the dish was Tournedos Rossini illustrates how just confusing a smart-ish idea can be when translated into stage business.
'Ariadne auf Naxos' to 11 July, glynde bourne.com; 'La donna del lago' to 11 June, roh.org.uk
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