Review of Ariadne auf Naxos:

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos perfect. Soloists and Orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino cond. Daniele Gatti label: Dynamic

The title promises something nobly tragic: a retelling of the fate of Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos by the hero Theseus. She either hanged herself or was saved by the god Dionysius, whichever version of the myth you prefer.

What Strauss and his librettist Hofmannsthal deliver instead is an extravagant confection of comedy, vocal performance and philosophy about love and art. Ariadne finds herself surrounded by a group of art commedy comic characters, led by the coquettish Zerbinetta, who mock the monastic devotion to Ariadne’s purity and encourage her to find a new man. This singular mixture of genres is explained, so to speak, by a prologue in which two theater companies are preparing two plays for a rich man whom we never see; one a serious treatment of Ariadne auf Naxos, one a burlesque entertainment. Many arguments and teasing ensue between the composer of the opera seria and Zerbinetta, the leader of the comic troupe, although Zerbinetta confesses to the composer that she is an idealist in her own way, more humane, in search of the man who will love her . Truly. Finally the rich man says that due to lack of time they must be performed together, which leads to arguments, fits of jealousy and despair on the part of the Composer who wants to pursue the Ideal.

The trick is to balance the play’s deep and tender moments with the cynical and earthly side and make Hofmannsthal’s long-winded drama light. Here fussy direction and camerawork militate against sentiment. But the play’s creators don’t make it easy, with a long spoken part in the Prologue for an overbearing master of ceremonies. The role should be interpreted with a slight irony but Franz Tscherne makes him look like a drill sergeant. Even more difficult to play is the role of the Composer, whose desperate defense of high art seemed presumptuous and exaggerated in this personification of Sophie Koch. The staging of the rich man, with his gold-leafed potted palms and gilded chaise-longues, and various strutting ballet masters and hairdressers make it look very abandoned. The singing is fragmentary, with the exception of Markus Werba as Music Master who tries to encourage the Composer to be a little wiser than the world.

Thank goodness for the young Australian soprano Jessica Pratt, who lends real vocal class as well as human warmth to the evening. The moment in the Prologue in which the Composer’s soulmate reveals itself after all is truly moving, and in the Opera itself it brings with it the vocal pyrotechnics of Zerbinetta’s famous aria in praise of ‘un uomo, poi un altro’ with fabulous style, receiving great applause from the notoriously difficult Florentine public. Next to her Krassimira Stoyanova as Ariadne looked a little starched in her desire for her God who will lead her to the Underworld. The final scene, in which she is unexpectedly awakened to love and life by the god Bacchus played by AJ Glueckert, is musically radiant, but it is Zerbinetta who steals the show.

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