La Scena Musicale

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Letter From Munich 2011: Ariadne auf Naxos

Soprano Emily Magee as the new Ariadne in Munich

by Joseph K. So

It's always a pleasure to return to the beautiful Bavarian State Opera every July for the Festival. This year's program is particularly interesting for me - six evenings of five operas (Ariadne auf Naxos, Don Giovanni, Rusalka, Der Rosenkavalier, Mitridate re di Ponto) and a Michael Volle Liederabend. Last evening was Ariadne auf Naxos, which I had previously seen in its premiere three years ago at the Prinzregenten-theater. Now it has moved to the larger space of the National-theater. Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, who sang the premiere of this Robert Carsen production, was to have reprised her marvelous Ariadne, but she had to withdraw from this (as well as Elsa in Lohengrin) and return to Canada due to the passing of her mother. American soprano Emily Magee took over both roles. Also new in this revival was the Bacchus of American tenor Robert Dean Smith, who also sang this role recently at the Met. The third new cast member was the Zerbinetta of Daniela Fally. Returning was the excellent Composer of Daniela Sindram.

It's my experience that the most evocative operatic productions are also the most enduring, ones that stand up to repeated viewing. I was very impressed with the Carsen production three years ago. Seeing it a second time last evening, my original impression only strengthened. I found more nuances that I had missed previously, and I discovered new layers of meaning. To be sure, the Carsen signature is written all over it. The Canadian director probably got the inspiration of situating the opening scene in a ballet studio - as the son of Canadian ballet maven Walter Carsen, the young Carsen was probably steeped in that tradition. It was staged very naturally, in a cinema verite fashion and it worked beautifully. Another Carsen signature is the presence of extra - wordless, or should I say note-less - personages on stage that help to flesh out the drama. Very sparse staging throughout, with the occasional prop such as upright pianos during Zerbinetta's big aria. The visual clarity allows the audience to focus on the drama and the interactions of the characters. The presence of doubles seems to suggest that we are not just watching the love loss of Ariadne, but that of all womanhood. In the final scene, the men led by Bacchus on one side and Ariadne and her women on the other side coming together, the symbolism is plain to see. That, combined with the nobility of the music of the final duet, was extremely moving to me. What of the gender-bending scenes? The four comedians, some of them rather over-fed, in black dresses, or the chorus-line of lithe-bodied men camping it up behind Zerbinetta? Carsen is probably likely also poking fun at the opposing sexual agendas of men and women. I loved the jazzy, contemporary feel to the choreography, once again probably influence by contemporary ballet.

The cast last evening was very strong, really without a weak link. Magee is of course a celebrated Ariadne, having sung it elsewhere and can be seen on the dvd from Zurich. She stepped easily into this production - physically she bears quite a resemblance to Pieczonka. Vocally she was very good over all. She took a little bit of time to warm up - if her high fortissimos were a little forced in the beginning, it improved greatly midway in the Opera; and her high pianissimos in "Ein schoenes war" were lovely. Her only true weakness was the very low notes in "Es gibt ein Reich" but she can be forgiven as even a great Ariadne like Lisa Della Casa couldn't make those notes sound beautiful! Magee's comedic moments in the Prologue were understated, which is preferable as far as I am concerned. Robert Dean Smith is one of the few tenors capable of handling the high tessitura of Bacchus without strain, but occasionally he was covered by the orchestra. Coloratura soprano Daniela Fally is a voice new to me. Last evening her Zerbinetta was vocally not quite on the same level as Diana Damrau, and Fally is an equally scintillating actress. Daniela Sindram reprised her amazing Composer. Perhaps vocally she wasn't the very best I have heard - and I've heard some great ones over the years, but Sindram wins hands down as the most believable impersonating a man! I love the way Carsen's staging spills over at the beginning and the end, as well as in between the prologue and the opera, giving the proceedings a cinema verite feel. There were plenty of entrances on the side aisles of the auditorium, and the houselights were kept up a lot of the time, making the audience feel as if they were part of the action.

The reduced orchestra under Kent Nagano sounded great. I am sure this is a piece that the musicians can play in their sleep - the strings and woodwinds were sounding especially beautiful. The final duet in Nagano's hand never sounded more noble and refulgent. The production, originally designed for the Prinzregententheater, doesn't look out of place in the bigger space of the National-theater, especially with some framing on either side of the stage to reduce the width. The ovations at the end lasted more than five minutes, with the singers called back time and time again. The audience reception of Nagano was positively ecstatic - I bet the public is sorry to see him leave! All in all, a wonderfully satisfying evening at the opera.

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