By, Dr. David Cowan
For the past few years Glyndebourne has been a family occasion for us, taking our two children for the full experience, champagne, a wonderful dinner and of course tremendous opera. This year was a bit special, because of Thomas Allen. Not so much his singing, as the fact that a matter of a few days previous he had been shaking hands with our daughter to present her with her BA degree from Durham University as Chancellor of said institution.
But what of this opera? Ariadne auf Naxos is a philosophical comedy, which Strauss and Hofmannsthal envisaged taking place in the private theatre of a Viennese aristocrat infused with the high art of the enlightenment (though the first version of Ariadne was in a baroque setting). At Glyndebourne this was certainly not the case, just as it was not the case when the same director Katharina Thoma staged the opera a mere four years ago, in 2013. The setting here was the 1940s and an English country house transformed by war into a hospital for the wounded. It could have easily been Glyndebourne itself.
The great, and enchanting, surprise was Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, who has a most powerful voice. In the Prologue, the Music Master is at pains to tell the Prima Donna she is at the heart of the opera, and so it was for Davidsen, who at the height of her performance brought audible gasps from the audience rewarded by tremendous and well-deserved applause. Davidsen won the 2015 Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition at 28, so we knew beforehand she was good, but this good? A lightly qualified yes.
The qualification is that Davidsen while a wonderful, and very tall at 6 feet 2 inches, physical presence still needs to animate the use her body more dramatically to keep up with her voice. This is no doubt something the now 30-year-old actress will gain through experience and the hopeful arrival of a stronger director able to help shape the kind of performance anyone who saw her will know is forthcoming. We hear Wagner in Ariadne’s duet with Bacchus, and I look forward to someday hearing, and seeing, her as a Wagner heroin.
Whatever the Music Master says, however, it was not all about her. This was a strong cast. I particularly appreciated Angela Brower’s Composer, always looming in the background when not in the action. Ariadne as one of the patients attentively looked after by the nurses, a charming trio of singers deserving a mention. Thomas Allen offered us a witty Music Master, while AJ Glueckert as Bacchus was a powerful performance, especially in the climatic duo, though somewhat compromised by his attire in what looked more like RAF mechanic overalls than a godlike pilot’s uniform.
Cornelius Meister conducted the London Philharmonic with great mastery of the Strauss score. Erin Morley as Zerbinetta was mischievous with a wonderful line in come-hither looks, which enlivened the sad circumstances of the hospital. I was not convinced though that she was helped by playing the part tranquillised in a straitjacket during her showpiece aria. Björn Bürger played the Harlequin with great charm. The quartet of men playing the four comedians were delightfully funny. Visually the staging was quite stunning.
In her programme note, Thoma describes the opera as a debate about the merits of high and low art, explaining it is ‘a journey from despair and disappointment to hope. And the challenge is to draw the two parts together in a cohesive way.’ The main, perhaps only real, disappointment of the evening was the overall effect being diminished by the rapid dispensing of Hofmannsthal’s intriguing idea of a courtly opera-within-an-opera and the odd juxtaposition of wartime suffering and the comical, and the cohesion sought never really surfaced.