Thursday, 30 September 2010

Hairman at the Opera gets to know…Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (Part 1)

Photo taken from WNO

The sharp eyed among you may have noticed a change of emphasis in the title of this post. I may be many things – Supreme Hairdresser-in-Chief to the Stars, a daring shark tamer, the world’s greatest blinker – but as yet my opera plot untangling skills aren’t quite there to lay claim to Meisterteller levels just yet. You may want to close your eyes as I begin my quest to find Ariadne, Naxos and, if I’ve got the time, auf.

The first thing that struck me even before I get round to listening to the opera was the character list:

  • Prima-Donna / Ariadne
  • The Composer
  • Zerbinetta
  • The Tenor / Bacchus
  • A Music Master
  • The Major-Domo
  • An Officer
  • A Dancing Master
  • A Wig-maker
  • A Dancing Master
  • A Footman
  • Harlequin
  • Scaramouche
  • Truffaldino
  • Brighella
  • Naiad
  • Dryad
  • Echo

Can you spot what it was that kapowed me? With the exception of Zerbinetta all the characters are referred to by their occupation or as figures from the commedia dell'arte and Greek mythology. Hardly personable stuff. It reads more like an Ikea character list. Fancy writing an opera? Then follow this blueprint and you’re half the way there! And then there was the description of the work as being an Opera in one act with a Prologue. Hmmm. Not what I’m used to seeing and though I’m not usually a creature of habit, I like to know where I stand with a work, and all I was seeing with Ariadne was distancing effects.

Hiding my reservations with a heavy dose of optimism I started in on the libretto. The story for the Prologue goes something like this…

The setting is a rich man’s house in Vienna where two groups of artists are preparing their separate performances for an unseen moneybags’ dinner party entertainment. One group is very serious, or with pretensions of high art. The second group is far more light-hearted, and realistic in their approach to their work.

The Composer heads the first, and most prominent, of the two camps. Passionate and serious about his art, prone to dramatic outbursts and submissive of anything that hints towards enjoyment / fun he’s like an angst ridden A-Level English Lit student. There is one important aspect to the role – it’s actually a trouser role, so expect to hear a mezzo, not a tenor.

Backing up the Composer is the Music Master, a pliable man of art who learns that a bit of comedy is to follow his pupil’s solemn work of art. Something that won’t go down well with the sulk.

Prima-Donna and the Tenor, both of whom are concerned about how great they are as artists, make up the rest of the gang. They probably have the best known bit of Moonlight Sonata as their ring tones and stride around Tesco, grandly placing a Pot Noodle into their trolleys.

The second group of performers is led by Zerbinetta, a Mae West character. She cares little for the overly serious approach to life and art. For her life is to be enjoyed. In her corner of the ring are her four sidekicks Harlequin, Scaramouche, Truffaldino, Brighella and the Dancing Master.

Gluing both these camps together is the Major-Domo or, as he should have been called, Major Ass Kisser. Smugly delivering His Master's Verbals he unloads the priceless bit of information that his boss wants a mash up of both works so he can fit in a fireworks display before the end of his dinner party.

Cue Composer losing it, Music Master pointing out that they aren't endangering Gramophone Magazine's Top 1, 000,000 Lowest Earners List and that they need the gig. The Composer's will wobbles and is completely wobbled when Zerbinetta flashes her lashes. But not for long. The Composer freaks out when the reality hits the fan of what will happen to his work. Exit Composer stage left, carrying fan.

That, in a nutshell, is the Prologue. On the surface of things it's pretty much a comedy with well-defined characters. You could say stereotypical characters, but their words are far more interesting for them to be labelled as run of the mill creations. They touch on quite thoughtful questions with regards to art and love and, in a way, life in general. It's a bit like X Factor, except no one is dredging a tear up for the camera or loving everybody.

So how's the music? Unfortunately, due to a technical #fail, I can't bring you the excerpts I wanted to. This leaves me to fill in the gaps with some pesky words. RomanticbelcantovaudevillegospelWagner is a term not used too often by music critics, but it should be. The score plays like a river, sometimes gentle, sometimes choppy, and sometimes raging – but never dull and with moments of heartbreaking melancholy.

Stay tuned for my encounter with the second part of the opera (known as Opera), by which time I hope to have thumped some sense into technology with a brick thick book and be able to bring you an example of Ariadne aufing it on Naxos. The book, in case you are wondering, is War and Peace – not a novel I'd suggest you read, but it makes a great founding stone on which you can balance all manner of PC related junk.

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