What is it that establishes Covent Garden's Ariadne auf Naxos as so truly great? Perhaps Sir Colin Davis's initial nursing of searing strings and penetrating bassoon - lovely harbinger of death; one lost little old lady in a "dead" upstairs anteroom and Beryl Reid-like seamstress in the seamy basement - a "lonely" detail in Christof Loy's super production which contrasts with the way Herbert Murauer's split-level set then sensationally parts to reveal actorial mayhem below stairs; the stunned silence when the Majordomo's appalling diktat - "Gleichzeitig!" ("Both shows at once!") - sinks in? Or the purple patch when Susan Graham's fretful Composer blossoms into a death-fixated vision of true art unveiling true (com)passion?
One of the Strauss/von Hofmannsthal canon's masterly splicings of death and rebirth, this is a life-enhancing Ariadne-Zerbinetta show. True there's fractional loss in revival. Initial freneticism, if subtler, is not as sharp. John Graham-Hall's sneery Dancing Master excels not only because of his garish-yellow-gum-chewing awfulness, but because he's the first to galvanise vocally, as Dale Duesing's Music Master manifestly doesn't. There are even early moments when you sense Davis needs to push it on; thrice, the skein lurches or hobbles. The Capriccio-like launch to the main Act seemed oddly loose.
But what playing, what singing; crucially, what chemistry. Graham catches not just the Composer's boyish desperation, but his undergraduate ideals wonderfully. That vision of isolation - Ariadne's fusing with his - took the auditorium by storm. The crux, where Zerbinetta's crew is silenced and Diana Damrau's eyes blend with the Composer's - the glance (ein Blick) that can metamorphose attitudes and change a lifetime - proved breath stopping.
Dryad and Naiad (respectively Christine Rice and Ha Young Lee, one of the Royal Opera House's Vilar Young Artists of 2002) launch the island scene enchantingly, while Rachels Nicholls's Echo - fabulously moved by Loy so as constantly to reframe/readjust the scene - is quite wonderful; those Mozartian trios are heavenly. Alasdair Elliott's animated Brighella gets the funnies rolling, like a cheeky Charlie Drake; Grant Doyle's Harlequin who is a bit of rough, nicely stole the show; Jeremy White's Truffaldino is the best-sounding of the lot. The Scaramuccio of Christopher Lemming, how-ever, seems too subfusc, and the ditties lacked the banjoing twangy topline buzz that so sizzled in the recent staging which was at Aldeburgh.
But it's Damrau's stupendous box of tricks - she is as thrilling as Marlis Petersen was when she played the Night- ingale in Braunfels's Die Vögel at Geneva this spring - that deservedly brought the house down. And then there was the divine Anne Schwanewilms as Ariadne, whose Euryanthe in Euryanthe and Grete in Der ferne Klang took Glyndebourne and Berlin in turns by storm. Tall, gainly, commanding, with a voice that can send shivers through you, Schwanewilms is one of the greatest singers on the operatic stage today. She's done the role before, and could risk letting rip even more: the focused sound is stunning even when she sings upside down. Cradled by exquisite violin solos and an undertow of low clarinets, wrapped in Richard Margison's ample Dionysiac arms and framed by Murauer's blue-shadow stellar backdrop in the final scene, Schwanewilms's forceful presence underlines the sheer psychological scale and wisdom of this desert island Rosenkavalier.
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