Magazine article The Spectator

Terrific Beginning

Magazine article The Spectator

Terrific Beginning

Article excerpt


Ariadne auf Naxos

(The Royal Opera House)

The Threepenny Opera

(Lyric, Hammersmith)

Terrific beginning

The Royal Opera's new season has got off to a terrific start with a new production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, in which, thanks to extremely thorough preparation, every element in this complex piece, which can so easily seem merely complicated, is brought into balance with the rest, so that the whole amounts to one of the most satisfying evenings in the opera house that I have had for years. The scenery and production, by Herbert Murauer and Christof Loy respectively, are lucid and uncluttered. The action of the Prologue is updated to early in the 20th century, the usual contemporary cliche, I at first felt, of setting an opera in the period when it was written. Mostly, however, it works very well here, though the figure and temperament of the extremely youthful Composer seem less plausible than when set in the 17th century.

But the battle between artistic idealism and the demands of sponsors and punters is an ageless one, and this production brings it into the sharp and seedy characterisation of the Music Master by Thomas Allen. He looks like a candidate for early retirement at a New University, with toolong, under-washed hair, and a general air of knowing it all and not caring much about anything any longer - but he cares just enough to endow the character with a fullness of life rarely encountered in opera. He is the perfect foil for the Composer of Sophie Koch, heartbreaking in her ardent seriousness and contempt of compromise. By the time she had reached the intense short scene with Zerbinetta, and then the apotheosis of Music, she was radiating a charisma, at the same time that she was comic - and the more moving because she was comic - which had me in tears, not a condition that Strauss often induces. A sinister Dancing Master from John Graham Hall and excellent cameos from all the other busy figures in the Prologue, with occasionally almost too much business to take in, were testimonies to Loy's skill, and a welcome relief after the travesty of Gluck that he had presented at Glyndebourne in Iphigenie en Aulide four months ago.

Thanks to the amount of scenery in the Prologue, we had to endure an interval of 40 minutes, enough to kill almost any work when the switch of interest is so marked as in Ariadne. But Antonio Pappano, unflagging after what seem to have been at least 100 interviews in the past weeks, all asking the same predictable and pointless questions, immediately brought the opera proper to life with playing that was refined but never effete, often broad but buoyant. …

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