Monday, 3 June 2013
Why Glyndebourne's Ariadne works for me
It's not fared well in the press, but Katharina Thoma's production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos adds up. At least it did for me when after all that talking about it I finally got to see this very original take on my desert island opera at Glyndebourne on Sunday. The cynical might say I was primed to like it by Thoma and the very intense mezzo singing the pivotal role of the Composer, Kate Lindsey (in the first of Alastair Muir's production photos above), when I spoke to them a week before the opening for The Arts Desk. It's true that everything Thoma explained about Ariadne's longing for death along with Bacchus's emergence from a life-threatening experience made sense as applied to traumatised victims of the Second World War in a makeshift country-house sanatorium who move from darkness to light. But it could have remained just a concept.
Instead, what ultimately materialised was what I'd most expected to miss - poet Hofmannsthal's essential 'mystery of transformation' - as Vladimir Jurowski gave the last half-hour wings and two very fine singers rose to the challenge. Soile Isokoski is no great shakes as a mover, but she acts with the voice, and what an ideally Straussian one it is for the most part, opulently riding the composer's 37 piece orchestra when it wants to become a hundred-headed hydra for Bacchus's arrival. I believed in her attempted suicide as she awaits the messenger of death; and, though it was all a little quick, in her capitulation to an almost equally befuddled Bacchus. Yes, it did indeed bring tears to the eyes and that sense of heightened emotion we so rarely find in this tricky and usually less than plausible love duet.
Sergey Skorokhodov had been under the weather on the first night, according to reviews, but yesterday evening we got the most convincing heroic-tenor god/hero on both dramatic and vocal fronts I've ever seen and heard in this usually thankless role. Anticipation of his turning up at Convalescence House, heralded not by three nymphs but keyed-up nurses drooling over a newspaper report, was decked out in all the glow the trio had earlier missed in their more Rhinemaidenish scene, the one blip where co-ordination with the London Philharmonic was less than spot-on.
All the more amazing, then, that the Prologue never dropped a stitch. Even the anti-Regietheater hordes surely couldn't have faulted Thoma's close lining-up of every little detail with the febrile clarity of Jurowski's absolutely fresh interpretation. One of many felicitous touches was to add to the four commedia dell'arte (read ENSA) gents - deft lindyhoppers and jitterbuggers in the opera's intermezzo - a fifth, playing the pianist which Strauss so often uses to accompany their antics. He twiddles assent to the Dancing Master's pirouette, and in the opera strikes his little top note on Zerbinetta's 'Verwandlungen' before zipping off to avoid any more of her touching-up.
Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke as said 'choreographer' to the comic troupe is Glyndebourne's character tenor of choice - how I'd love to see him as Mime - and spars well with Thomas Allen's consummate Music Master, still in absolutely top form vocally (above left with Ablinger-Sperrhacke). All the bit parts are taken with the detail only seven weeks of rehearsal at Glyndebourne can allow; among them there's a promising turn from Frederick Long as the Lackey who's knocked over and takes his bullying out on the Composer. Lindsey burns and rages, the boy wonder to the life; if the voice might be a bit slimline for a bigger house, it's perfect here - and indeed, a first-time acquaintance with this most sophisticated of 'little entertainments' in a theatre exactly the right size is a revelation, especially given all that orchestral cleverness.
Is the curtain to the backstage shenanigans one step too far? I think not, given that the music fulminates so and really leaves the action nowhere to go otherwise. A suicide, as in Claus Guth's Zürich production, is no solution, so I reckon Thoma got it right in her given context. We had a bonus, by all accounts, last night: an indisposed Laura Claycomb* - the Zerbinetta pictured below, obviously - was replaced by her cover, Ukrainian soprano Ulyana Aleksyuk. The swelling on the right notes to more than tweety-pie brilliance gave the love-scene of the Prologue a real extra frisson.
In the opera, it turned out Aleksyuk is no spot-on coloratura, but she still carried it off and managed all the top notes. And here I do think the stage business, confining Zerbinetta at her most Lucia-ish to an injection and a straitjacket, is one step too far. At least it cues an hallucinogenic second instalment of the Harlequinade, three of the four boys dragged up as the nurses; a plausible substitute for more of the same, which usually palls. And how dull, brainless and obscure, despite a surprisingly radiant performance from Renée Fleming and a very promising one from Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta, is Philippe Arlaud's Baden-Baden production which I've just reviewed on its DVD release for the BBC Music Magazine.
Anyway, I was duty bound to post this tonight, since tomorrow (Tuesday) is the live screening in cinemas across the country and the livestream via Glyndebourne's own website, both starting at 6.45pm (UPDATE: the whole thing is available to view when you want on the Guardian's website until 31 August). Don't miss one or the other - and stay with the experience to the very end even if you don't at first like what you see of the opera; it really is crowned with the mother of all transcendent finales. A reminder, too, that if you want to mug up on the basics of the elaborate high-art vs low-art drama, the Glyndebourne podcast presented by Peggy Reynolds with some rather alarming interpolations from self is worth a listen or a download here.
So, not quite a perfect view of Ariadne, but when good, great. And there were hardly enough false notes to strip the afternoon and evening of their perfection. I had an especially happy time with the pre-performance talk, and was delighted to welcome in the audience a stylish DJd gentleman with an excellent green mohican and some very classily dressed ladies in shalwar kemises of delicious hues. They were not shy with their thanks afterwards, either.
We also found a fabulous new spot of pleasing remoteness for the picnic. The gardeners have cut green paths through the meadow above the lake and below the sheep field that goes uphill towards the wind turbine. Here the sun warmed us all the way through the long supper interval as we tucked into substantial fare not from Bill's - the old regime of salad boxes is no more - but from a promising cafe/deli closer to the station. A few quick garden shots: most varieties of tulip are over, but not these in the formal garden
and diverse irises are now in their prime.
The cycads shoot out their ferns at last,
the much-loved mulberry near the house is finally leafing - will we be back to enjoy its delicious fruits? -
and a ceanothus alongside alliums frames the lawn ensembles.
I mentioned Sean Henry's painted bronze sculptures in an earlier entry - any reservations on artistic merit may be offset by the fact that the figures are certainly good theatre - but I fancy Bryn as 'The Wanderer' wasn't there the week before the season started. He certainly is now, and dwarfs a tall admirer of his (this for both our blogging Wanderer and Lottie in Zurich).
Only one sour reminder spoiled the Sussex summer idyll. Every time the train from London to Lewes hits the viaduct at Balcombe, I instinctively look up from whatever I'm reading. It might be the sudden extra light from an abundance of sky, but in any case this is the loveliest part of the journey as you look down on the Ouse valley from a great height. I've never seen the viaduct from below but it enhances rather than spoils the landscape, I think.
Unlike the proposals to frack in the Balcombe area, the thin end of the exploitable wedge. France and Bulgaria won't allow fracking, swathes of America are against it, the evidence of potential damage is mounting all the time, so what motivates our greedy Conservatives -among them Balcombe MP Francis Maude, who appointed Lord Browne, a director of the firm Cuadrilla which intends to exploit these Sussex resources, to the Cabinet Office three years ago?
The gasdrillinginbalcombe Wordpress site which uses the above as its banner (read the inscription and much more here) will keep us all in the picture. And when the local people hold their next protest, I for one hope to be there with them.
*Tuesday evening - so much for the Berglund piece I was supposed to finish tonight. I succumbed to the opera - ie post-interval - partly because I wanted to see Claycomb. And she made more sense of the move from entertainer to crazed nympho: I understand now how it's used as a fulcrum to shift the balance from Ariadne's problems to the ones Zerbinetta turns out to have, too. No injection tonight, by the way. And this time really accurate coloratura which Claycomb could carry out while doing and having done to her all manner of things.
The duet moved me as before, though for the film they'll have to use Sunday night's take of Bacchus's final phrase; Skorokhodov wasn't quite on the same top form tonight. Now - comments, anyone? Do say if you hated it and we'll argue it out.