Music: Strauss, Rattle and the LSO at Their Finest ; CLASSICAL Ariadne Auf Naxos London Symphony Orchestra Barbican, London Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, Eybler Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
Picard, Anna, The Independent (London, England)
The bloodied fields of Belgium must have seemed a long way away from Vienna in 1916, for somehow, while Europe was tearing itself to pieces, Richard Strauss created Ariadne auf Naxos, a bewilderingly beautiful piece of operatic froth. Classy froth - and more Agent Provocateur than Ann Summers - but froth, nonetheless. The plot is a tale of operatic egos punctured on their own pomposity. An entertainment is planned at the estate of "the richest man in Vienna"; the entertainers - a commedia dell'arte troupe and a group of "serious" musicians - have their contributions cut short by a fireworks display and end up having to share the stage during the Composer's tragic opera. This collision of artistic values results in an unforeseen happy ending to the opera-within-an-opera as the heartbroken Ariadne finds solace with Bacchus (but a glass or two of wine is always advisable for a broken heart, I find).
The second performance in Simon Rattle's two night stand at the Barbican last week was one of those concerts that not only stick in your memory, but in your senses. Given the luxurious budget allocated to a creme de la creme line-up of soloists (where even the bit parts were played by big-ish names) it was bound to be good, but I hadn't expected it to be this good; shimmering blocks of sound, chords where you could virtually taste the different colours of each instrument, and a level of responsiveness between conductor and players that you hear maybe once every five years.
Who knows why Strauss squandered so much beauty on this slight, light comedy? The opera within Ariadne has Strauss' customarily lavish writing but the Prologue is an unparalleled riot of musical colour. If you set out along the tricksy path of posthumous psychoanalysis, it's almost as if after Rosenkavalier he was trying to say - see, I can do it better, more richly, more quickly! Orchestral textures are thrust out in a rapid fit of largesse while the vocal melodies soar like Chagall's angels, despite the all too earthly failings of the opera's characters. There's a kind of decadent, euphoric madness to this music; Strauss's trademark looping, swooping climaxes come thick and fast - maybe too thick and fast - and by the interval, I was starting to feel like Barbarella emerging from Duran Duran's orgasmatron.
This was a concert event and the great and the good were out in force. At this level, singers are regarded rather like thoroughbred horses and - like the Grand National - there was lots of chit-chat about form and pedigree, with agents and bookers and public all talking up their personal favourites over a swift gin and tonic. The pre-concert money seemed to be on Anne Schwanewilms - the dramatic soprano who stepped in for Katarina Dalayman at the last minute and had learned the roles of Ariadne and Prima Donna in two scant weeks - with Christine Schafer in the athletic role of Zerbinetta a close second. But the real star of the evening (and this was Ladies' Night) turned out to be mezzo Angelika Kirschlager as the Composer - rake-thin and earnestly beautiful with a clear, vibrant mezzo that cut through the texture of the orchestra like a pair of glass scissors.
Though Zerbinetta has all the high notes and Ariadne the longest, jammiest lines, the Composer carries the romance and the subtlety. Strauss must have been a secure personality to poke such gentle fun at his own profession. Kirschlager gave the performance of a lifetime - intelligent, lyrical and humourous - while single- handedly putting paid to the tiresome old myth about sound being related to girth.
Schwanewilms' electric high notes reminded me of a young Rosalind Plowright - though she had little of the latter's dramatic presence. It is a stunning voice, but her relative unfamiliarity with the role led to a rather stiff Ariadne, low on eroticism. …