Blasts from the past: Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne, 18 May 2013
It was a year ago today and it inspired me to post the impressions I recorded over at talk classical.
I saw Glyndebourne’s much maligned 2013 Ariadne auf Naxos twice, in the company of a jolly group of people. It was my first time at the festival and a ridiculous amount of fun. Now it’s true that in many ways Ariadne is my favourite Struass opera and I’ve a fondness for weekends in the beautiful countryside…:
As you may or may not know, this year’s Glyndebourne Festival opened yesterday with a new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Yours truly is happy to report the production worked very well and the ensemble cast sang wonderfully. Now I know opinions are just that and nothing more and I’ve read that others objected to the updating to the – everybody’s favourite – blitzkrieg era. I myself was a bit apprehensive upon hearing about this updating, but I was won over by the actual performance. You may judge for yourself if you decide to watch the live streaming on 4 June (7pm GMT) on guardian’s website.
You may or may not know that the Glyndebourne Festival is actually set on someone’s property (the manor is next door to the venue), which matches the libretto and thus tickles my personal sensibility. Plus, it’s a beautiful place, colourful tulips, carp (?) and sheep included. A strange thing is there are no rubbish bins on the lawn, although you’re encouraged to bring your own picnic basket and it seemed most everybody obliged. They also left their picnic baskets where they were before gathering inside for the Prologue. Nice touch.
Onto the opera (bear with me if you know the synopsis, I want to remind you just so you see how the production worked with the actual libretto): Ariadne is about this young composer who’s got his very first commission to write an opera seria for the evening entertainment of some wealthy fop we never see. Of course he’s put into it all the pathos of his youthful idealism: his main character is the perfect woman (and, as such, not a real person, but merely a voice for his immaturity – he’s too young to know anything about actual love) who would rather die than betray her love even when her lover abandons her. There is nothing nobler than dying of love, is there? Heh.
What he doesn’t know is that his opera seria isn’t the only entertainment for the evening, just the appetizer followed by a vaudeville act. When he finds out, he is, of course, outraged and goes on and on (truly beautiful writing on Strauss’ part, though!) bemoaning the harsh reality of life interfering with “aht”, the product of his very soul etc. This is all happening, as per the libretto, in a lounge inside the manor, complete with faux island and palm tree as set design for his opera. Every time the Composer wails, the palm tree falls over.
The Composer is appalled to meet the vaudevillians, who openly make fun of his and his diva’s fastidiousness and self importance and generally act light-hearted, dance moves and all, in great contrast to the diva’s remoteness and the Composer’s despondency. The plot gets even funnier when a change in the evening programme, in order to accommodate the true highlight of the evening – the fireworks – is announced: to save time, both the opera seria and the vaudeville will be performed at once. For my money, this is one of the most hilariously sly commentaries on the work of art as cultural product – art, highbrow or lowbrow, is slightly below pretty, sparkly lights. It also showcases Strauss’ uncanny talent for seamlessly transitioning from emotionally poignant writing to silliness. This bit was, for me, the highlight of the evening, both the Composer (Kate Lindsey) and Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb) doing a great job. Their brief moment of true connection came out in a lovely ambiguous and touching way. Everybody is lonely – or marooned -, there are just different ways of coping with it.
The way the production was done, the Composer (who normally storms off at the end of the Prologue, when (in this case) bombs rain on the set which mirrors his emotional turmoil at seeing his opera “defiled” and possibly as real life fireworks) actually returns to lurk about during the Opera bit. At the end it is suggested that he has learned something valuable from this “first time” rather than that he was shattered by the cruel reality of art meeting everyday life.
For the Opera (second act), the lounge from the manor was set as a hospital, presumably because everybody was affected by the bombing at the end of the Prologue, which I thought worked both at face value and metaphorically, as everybody involved in this impromptu mashup would be thrown off kilter in some way.
Some have objected to Zerbinetta’s apparent sexual molestation during her fireworks coloratura, but I didn’t see it that way. Obviously her character is centred on seduction and manipulation, which is both her way of coping/interacting/expressing herself as an artist and as a person (which came first would be the question – the dancing master says she always plays herself). All that groping mixed with coloratura I thought was the production’s way of showing that all the men want a piece of her, and she, in turn, wants all of them. She might be the antithesis of Ariadne or just another way of trying to deal with the inner emptiness of being seen as entertainment only.