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Superb singing that is not lived up to by the production
Ariadne alongside Der Rosenkavalier, Elektra and Salome is one of my favourite Strauss operas for its sophisticated libretto and soaring music. This said, while I would not say that this 2003 Paris production is bad, it doesn't do the opera justice in the way it ought. The singing and musical values are superb but the strange production values and the often senseless staging really let things down.
Production values: The sets really didn't do all that much for me, I do prefer a more enchantingly mystical approach seen in the 1965, 1978 and 1988 performances. Here though, take for example the prologue where the Prima Donna looks as though she is recalling La Castafiore, and then in the opera she is in rags living in a building site on a mattress. This approach seemed really strange to me, perhaps it may have worked in a production of Elektra but in Ariadne Auf Naxos considering the libretto it jars. The rest of the settings are often too sparse and darkly lit. The costumes I also disliked, Ariadne's was bad enough but the worst offender was for Zerbinetta, the spiky red hair and the Hawaiian outfits really looked ridiculous. Pretty much the only character to get by unscathed is the Composer whose grey smart suit is perfectly suited to the character.
The staging: Another weak point, especially in Act 2 where things really take a nosedive both in production values and staging. There are some bizarre touches like Zerbinetta and her friends driving up in a van, which added nothing to the proceedings and didn't make any sense. Also what has always been interesting about Ariadne Auf Naxos is the contrast between opera buffa and opera seria. Sadly though in this production the contrast comes across as awkward, a first and hopefully the last.
Musical values: This is where the production is much more successful. The orchestration is more exposed than the bombastic and haunting ones of Salome and Elektra and similar to the lushness of the likes of Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio. There are a couple of moments where the orchestration isn't quite as tightly knitted as one would want, but most of the time it is powerful playing, exciting also in the final scene. The harp and the celesta are particularly good, though the woodwind in the final scene are firm and the strings are delicate and controlled. The conducting of Pinchas Steinberg is seamless.
Singing: By far and away the best asset of the production. The standout is Sophie Koch, the whole interpretation is impassioned and moving and her firm bright tone is really wonderful on the ears. Natalie Dessay's Zerbinetta continues to thrill, the top notes are as ever effortless, her technique dazzling and her acting, especially on the physical side, full of energy and character. Katharina Dalayman provides some strong singing with a powerful tone, controlled legato and good diction. She manages to be commanding and moving also. Jon Villars is in the thankless role of Bacchus, and of the three times I've seen him in this role it is here where he is at his best. His tone as you'd expect is ringing and golden, but the surprise was the acting. Whereas he was rather stand and sing in the other two productions(2000 and 2001) while not always subtle he is exciting. Of the secondary roles the best were David Wilson-Johnson and Graham Clark. Wilson-Johnson's Music Master is characterful and very strong and funny. Clark is not in his very best voice, having sung the likes of Wagner(Loge and Mime especially) for years, but he is very incisive.
Overall, lacking in terms of production and staging, but the superb singing especially makes it tolerable if not recommended. 5/10 Bethany Cox
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