With ballet, fencing and buffoonery as well as the star tenor Jonas Kaufmann in a ghastly gold leopard-print suit, Richard Strauss’s opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Salzburg Festival has something for everyone.
The audience loved it, chortling at the farce and breaking into applause after Elena Mosuc’s mischievously coquettish, impressively accurate rendering of Zerbinetta’s “Grossmaechtige Prinzessin” (Great Princess). One of the trickiest arias for coloratura soprano ever written is sung by Mosuc in a red pompom skirt accompanied by lots of pert eyelash-fluttering.
The production by Salzburg’s newly appointed director of drama Sven-Eric Bechtolf bravely revives the first version of the hybrid play-opera, which premiered in Stuttgart in 1912 and was a horrendous flop -- partly because King Karl of Wuerttemberg insisted on a big reception between the acts that lengthened the whole evening beyond the audience’s endurance.
“Ariadne auf Naxos” is in two halves. The first part is a play based on Moliere’s “Le bourgeois gentilhomme.” The nouveau riche buffoon Monsieur Jourdain is trying to impress a young widow by staging an opera at his home, then insists that it is rolled together with Zerbinetta’s comedy troupe’s act and ends promptly to leave time for a firework display.
This play part, later abridged by Hugo von Hofmannsthal to a prologue, is performed in Salzburg in full, set in the elegant drawing-room of a stately home with leafy woods beyond tall windows. The clownery, initially diverting, wore thin before the end of Act One.
Act Two is the play-within-the-play -- the grief-stricken Ariadne’s love-at-first-sight meeting with the young god Bacchus, accompanied by Zerbinetta and her gang of clowns.
Bechtolf adds yet another layer by including Von Hofmannsthal into the mix. While he was working on “Ariadne,” the librettist met a young, inconsolably grieving widow with whom he corresponded the rest of his life.
The staging opens with Hofmannsthal trying to persuade the widow that she must love again. The two remain on stage throughout, watching the proceedings. Instead of complicating the work, it actually adds coherence to the whole by creating a frame for the opera’s themes of fidelity and love.
Kaufmann, who has had to cancel performances this summer because of a lingering infection, was back in excellent form in Salzburg, rolling on stage in a rather ungainly clinch with Emily Magee as Ariadne. Daniel Harding, standing in for Riccardo Chailly, conducted the Vienna Philharmonic with a light, transparent touch. Rating: ***
The only experimental element of the Salzburg Festival’s new “Magic Flute” is Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s conducting. He boldly tries out different tempi for this universally known and much-loved Mozart opera, played here on period instruments by the Concentus Musicus Wien. It sounds wonderful -- particularly the softly evocative tones of the wooden flute.
Jens-Daniel Herzog’s production is embarrassingly traditional and provincial in outlook. Lines like “Women do little and talk much” are delivered without irony for chauvinist bankers in the audience to snigger at.
By far the most egregious example of prehistoric thinking is the lecherous Moor, here an Austrian tenor blacked up with the modern equivalent of boot polish and clad in a gold suit with white shoes.
Surely Herzog could have come up with an inventive way to confront 18th-century racism. Instead he perpetuates it, and white performers made up to look like blacks are really not acceptable. An elderly Japanese lady I met in the intermission was equally shocked. “OK in Mozart’s time,” she said. “Not OK today.” Quite.
A bright spot was the Swiss tenor Bernard Richter’s Tamino. He can project to the back of the cavernous Felsenreitschule theater, and yet every word remains clear.
Rating: * (for production) **** (for music)
The Salzburg Festival runs through Sept. 2. For more information, go to http://www.salzburgerfestspiele.at/en
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Muse highlights include Mark Beech on rock music, Richard Vines on dining, John Mariani on wine and James Russell on architecture.
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