Classical review: Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex

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Glyndebourne productions which put Glyndebourne itself on stage are nothing new, but for Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos director Katharina Thoma has harnessed a strand of history which has hitherto gone unremarked. In 1940, with opera off the menu, Glyndebourne became a reception centre for evacuee children.

Thoma has slightly altered this function to make it a hospital for casualties of the Battle of Britain, and that is now the work’s framing device. In the original libretto two simultaneous competing ‘operas’ – one high tragedy, the other ribald comedy – become entangled in the second half: in Thoma’s reworking, the debate is about therapy rather than art.

But it begins with wonderful fizz as Thomas Allen, in Sprechgesang mode as the Music Master, rehearses the parting of his curtains to reveal frantic preparations in a simulacrum of Glyndebourne’s Organ Room. With Vladimir Jurowski and a slimmed-down contingent from the London Philharmonic spinning a delicate musical web, eye and ear can scarcely keep up with the pace as – choreographed by Lucy Burge - the dramatis personae arrive with competing claims on costumes, wigs, and space; every so often a potted palm makes its own exasperated comment by wilting dramatically.

Things come exquisitely into focus as mezzo Kate Lindsey sings her first aria as the Composer, perfectly catching the evanescent beauty of its shifting tones and moods. Each singer makes the most of his or her moment in the limelight – nice to see the crazy Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke making an appearance in a spangled red jump-suit – with Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta offering a melodious reincarnation of Ginger Rogers. Then wham! - Mosquito fighters roar past the windows, the walls catch fire, and everything disintegrates. Thus is Thoma’s new-made plot sprung.

Julia Müer’s set becomes a ward with nurses tending the wounded; Soile Isokoski’s Ariadne lurks bedridden in a corner, suicidally depressed. The ensuing drama starts convincingly with the nymphs’ trio wittily delivered as beds are changed and sheets are folded, but the sheer literalism of Thoma’s concept prevents any imaginative take-off into the empyrean.

Rather than trying to puzzle out what the clowns in striped blazers may represent – doctors? orderlies? – we should instead be borne aloft by Strauss’s divine music and Hofmannsthal’s visionary poetry. Claycomb’s Zerbinetta and Sergey Skorokhodov’s Bacchus may be nicely sung, but neither projects the necessary electrical charge; only in Isokoski’s haunting performance, with brilliant support from the pit, does the real majesty of this work emerge.

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