Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos - WMC 9th of October

Fggfgju iiook;;k;lkghgfgh890jddffggj, 4yullohijk.

I haven’t discovered an Icelandic volcano, or a new health drink. Not even the chemical compound of good luck. With uncanny stubbornness my monitor decided to pack it in over the weekend, so deciding not to lucky guess my typing skills I waited until the fog cleared and I could type Ariadne, and not Anadin, or Agfkyik.

Less of the gibberish – it’s time to get to the reason you’re reading this.

The last note, by now, has long echoed on WNO’s final performance of the year at the Armadillo and in a Jahr that saw a triumphant Meistersinger there can have been no finer way to say auf wiedersehen than with another stellar performance of a German language work. Saturday evening’s performance of Ariadne auf Naxos was a revival of Neil Armfield’s celebrated production and was, in the words of my neighbour on the evening, one I’ll always remember. The I’ll, of course, applies not only to my neighbour but, judging by the cheers at the end of the performance, to many others in the audience. Do I count myself as one of the I’ll? As sure as my name is Hairman Bouffant Bob Pompadour the 19th Earl of Silver Comb the answer is...what do you think?

It’s a yes.

Who is to thank for bringing Joy to my Curls? Nigh on everybody who was involved in the production. First of all there’s Richard Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for creating the work in the first place. But specifically, for WNO’s effort, the thanks, according to guest reviewer, Armchair Critic (erm, me), go to...

Director Neil Armfield (and revival director Denni Sayers) for their pointing skills. The direction is a treat and gifts the performers with a clear sense of character and purpose. The Prologue crackles and fizzes with an energy and a fluidity that never feels forced while the Opera, working on many levels, has been approached carefully so that the potential quagmire of the commedia dell’arte scene is cannily navigated (with the aid of a wonky bratwurst and some hamper gymnastics), paving the way for an ending that is genuinely touching, and moving.

Helping the direction are Dale Ferguson’s designs, especially the Prologue set. An enjoyably detailed creation it invites the eye to roam around the backstage with props-a-plenty bedding in the authenticity. The Opera set is, at first, an intentionally wishy-washy drab affair with tattered sets. But within the course of events it houses a red curtained comedy, Bacchus’ mini-ship and aerially descending gangplank before dwindling to a darkened space illuminated by a constellation of stars.

Into this richly devised world steps an astutely cast group of singers. English mezzo, Sarah Connolly, dressed in a writerly suit, was the marquee name on the cast list and she lived up to expectations as the Composer, capturing the comedy, the passion and the hysterical naivety of the character both vocally and visually. Whether it was mournfully pouring a cup of water over her head, falling for Zerbinetta’s wiles or raging at her teacher she played the Composer with an earnestness that never felt overcooked.

Playing the role of Prima-Donna / Ariadne was Ireland’s Orla Boylan. Our first sighting of the soprano was of her in a dressing gown and playing up to her character name. Come the second act she was in second character mode and displaying a voice capable of rising over the orchestra, but which she wisely muted at times to allow a delicacy into her singing that aided Ariadne’s woes to be shown (in between glimpses of a finely tuned straight woman comic sensibility). Having never sung Ariadne on stage (or even in the shower) I’m not sure how difficult it is to switch between overblown emotion to the more honest, naked variety but Boylan, at the climax of the opera, was making me still my breath with the honesty of her singing.

Also stilling my breath was Canadian soprano Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta). Diminutive in size, with a voice as flexible as her ballet bar stretches, Beckmesser would be frothing at the mouth with her coloratura. But as he wasn’t there I decided to take up froth duties, especially after her hugely enjoyable Grossmächtige Prinzessin. The impressive aspect to her singing though wasn’t that she could colar-t until the cows came home but that through her singing and acting she made Zerbinetta a far warmer character than I envisaged her being. Oh, and for the record she was the night’s recipient of my now fabled Golden Lock Award™ for her aforementioned Grossmächtige Prinzessin.

Rounding off the last of the main roles was Brazilian tenor Ricardo Tamura. Like Boylan and Keith he was making his WNO debut (forgot to add those bits earlier...and he also made his UK debut) and as debuts go it was impressive stuff. Like Boylan he had to split personality his way through the performance, with 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999% of his singing coming at the end. Can you have a sweet heldentenor voice? If so then Tamura has one that he used to powerful effect on Saturday evening as the dramatic heart and soul of the work built to its crescendo. In the (sort of) words of Meg Ryan, I’ll have what he’s having.

Gillian Keith (Zerbinetta) Sarah Connolly (Composer) Photo by Richard H Smith taken from The Arts Desk

Of course, you can have all the gold in the world leading your cast, but if all that’s there to support it is a heap of scrap then your display will look more like a junkyard than a Rolls Royce (I know it’s a weak analogy but ignore its lameassness). Scroll a few paragraphs upwards and you’ll remember I mentioned something about astute casting? Go on. Have a look. Well, the astute casting, apart from being directed towards the Fab Four is also targeted towards the remainder of the cast.

A wonderful trio of nymphs melded their distinctive voices beautifully in harmony, especially at Bacchus’ entrance. Joanne Boag was an elegant Echo, Mary-Jean O’Doherty a sprightly Naiad and Patricia Orr a rich Dryad.

Z’s commedia dell’arte troupe were an example of Teamwork to a T! The quality of their performances were marked by my not wanting to send for Special Agent Seeley Booth to give his critique on the clown work. Applause please for a cunning Owen Webb (Harlequin), a lithe Aled Hall (Scaramuccio), a deeeeeeep voiced Julian Close (Truffaldino) and the bratwurst wielding Wynne Evans (Brighella).

In the smaller roles the quality was no less satisfying with Stephen Rooke making a good impression as the Dance Master, Eric Roberts smug and despotic as the Major-Domo and the ample voiced Robert Poulton (Music Master) bearing an uncanny resemblance (at a distance) to former WNO Director of Music, Carlo Rizzi.

And how were things in the pit? For once I think I’m able to comment without a sense of trepidation. Lothar Koenigs coaxed some sublime playing from the orchestra, especially the cello section. And in a rare event their playing of the overture for the Opera garners the second Golden Lock Award ™ of the evening – the first time two GL’s (as they’re known in the biz) have been handed out for the same performance.

I know I tend to be quite enthusiastic about most WNO productions (apart from Madame Butterfly – we just don’t get on) but even so this was a memorable performance by anyone’s standards, and was reflected in the chatter of happy voices as I skipped out of the building. With the WMC to my back I made my way home on a high, but with one nagging downside to the whole production – it was only given two dates in Cardiff. Not enough in my books. With this melancholic thought drifting towards the back of your mind I suggest you check to see if WNO visits a town, or city, near to you, and if it does take the night off from the TV / pub crawling and treat yourself to a night you’ll genuinely remember. As for me, I’m looking forward to the November 13th broadcast on BBC Radio 3 of one of the (two) Cardiff performances.


  1. Wow.. i read the prologue, opera and your live version of it in a go and it does make one big three tier appetising cake!!! will be looking forward to seeing or at least hearing this live! :-))))

  2. I'm not sure if you'll be able to make it when it's on in Oxford in November - but if you can it's well worth the trip. The production is a real visual treat and the music making is consistently sublime - yep, I'm on the last shreds of Saturday's high :))))))