Dean Smith, Robert


AriadneRichard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos

Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012 | Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo | Mezzo.tv, Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012

Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?

Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.

Ariadne

Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.

Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.

Ariadne

Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.

In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.

Ariadne

It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision of Capriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.

The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.

Tristan und IsoldeRichard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde

Bayreuthe Festspiele 2009 | Christoph Marthaler, Peter Schneider, Iréne Theorin, Robert Dean Smith, Michelle Breedt, Jukka Rasilainen, Robert Holl, Ralf Lukas | Opus Arte

It’s well known that Richard Wagner broke off the composition of his masterwork The Ring of the Nielbeung after the completion of the first two parts of the tetralogy (and up to the second act of Siegfried) in order to write his two other magnificent late music-dramas, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg. There are various political and commercial reasons for this break, but there remains a clear connection between the themes of these two works and those of the Ring that suggests to me that Wagner needed another outlet for the powerful themes that couldn’t fit within the tetralogy – as huge and encompassing a life-work as it is.

Die Meistersinger seems to want to consider another aspect of the nature of German art and culture and the creation of something new from a revered tradition that is part of what the Ring is about, but approached in a very different manner with a comic tone that can’t be found elsewhere in Wagner’s work. Tristan und Isolde seems to me to be very much connected with the love between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Die Walküre, a deeper exploration of the nature of love that is so powerful and so beyond our control that it surpasses any rational attempt to contain it, master it or even describe it, not least when it is a love that defies traditional moral constraints, something no doubt inspired by Wagner’s relationship with his mistress Mathilde Wesendonck.

Difficult to describe maybe, but in Tristan und Isolde Wagner makes one of his most persuasive accounts of those mystical feelings and powerful drives, not least through some of the most sublime music ever composed – almost equal to his final masterpiece Parsifal – that weaves contrasting leitmotifs together into a near frenzy of emotional outpourings and conflicting desires. In the same way that Parsifal would dwell at great length at the question of pain and suffering as a redemptive purifying force, Tristan und Isolde contains little real action and little dramatic intrigue in its four-hour-plus running time, leaving plenty of room for the opera to wallow in the sentiments it is concerned with.

Explored in depth they most certainly are, but even so, the structure of the opera would seem to work against a conventional expression of romantic sentiments, contriving rather to keep the two lovers apart or on guard for most of the opera. In Act 1, Tristan strives to keep his distance from the Irish princess that he has promised as a bride for King Marke, transporting her from Ireland to Cornwall, refusing requests from Isolde for a meeting, even accepting when they do meet what he suspects is a poison meant for both of them. Isolde is furious that she has feelings for the young man who, despite his disguise, she recognised and as the one who had killed her former betrothed, Lord Morold, yet still nursed him back to health. To make reparation she plots to give Tristan a poison and herself, for her weakness, but her maid Brangäne switches the draught for a love potion. Act 2 consists only of a furtive encounter between the two secretive lovers that is eventually discovered by the King, while Act 3 sees their separation and reencounter only in death.

Tristan

In spite of, or perhaps precisely because of the unconventional nature of the love story, Tristan und Isolde is all the more powerful in its means of expression. The tension that exists in Act 1 is violently broken down by the imbibing of a potion – as a rather melodramatic device one can take this literally or not, but the intent is the same – that removes all constraints, pretences and reveals their true feelings for each other. It’s in Act 2 that the expression of those feelings is given voice – through the words, through the singing and through the music. The expression of that forbidden love is principally characterised by contrasts – in distance and nearness, in hatred and love, in darkness and light, in life and death, but principally through the day and night. Theirs is a love where, through its origin where they expected death in a potion but instead found the birth of love, everything is reversed and meaning turned upside down. Through their furtive encounters when the King is absent, signalled to Tristan by the extinguishing of Isolde’s bedroom light, theirs is also a love that is “consecrated to the night”, existing in a terrible but unquenchable yearning and state of tension that is only fully realised and consummated in the death that comes in Act 3.

With its expression of love as an endless eternal state thriving on contradictions, Tristan und Isolde is reminiscent in this way of Parsifal in its elevation of suffering to a mythical, mystic state, and Wagner’s musical expression of this state is simply astounding and also somewhat punishing (for the performers as well as the audience, the opera at the time of its composition being rejected by Dresden after fifty-four rehearsals as being impossible to play). It maintains an incredible state of mounting tension, constantly revisiting and revising leitmotifs, playing them off each other, only bringing them to a form of release in the climax of the ‘Liebestod‘. It’s a moment of utter musical genius that one can feel more intensely than almost any other dramatic operatic scene has ever achieved.

In terms of dramatic representation, there’s not really much you can do with Tristan und Isolde, which conversely means that an imaginative director can do just about anything with it. Bayreuth doesn’t really seem interested in staging traditional productions of Wagner’s operas, but in an opera like Tristan und Isolde, that shouldn’t matter in the slightest. It’s not a historical opera tied to a specific period, it’s a mythological opera about the mysterious forces of love. Christoph Marthaler’s 2005 production for the Bayreuth Festival, recorded here in a 2009 performance, finds a good balance between making the drama and the interaction between the characters intriguing to consider, while still being faithful to the opera’s themes.

Tristan

From the costumes and the décor of the ships interior in Act 1, it looks like it is randomly set in the 1930s, but not over-realistically so – the sets there to create a specific environment that ends up working quite well, rising into three tiers for each of the three acts, maintaining a fluidity and consistency in the piece. The main visual theme however – considering its significance in the second act – is that of lights, from the neon ring “stars” in the sky in Act 1, to the light switches of Act 2, and the pulsing rings of Act 3 that could represent love or life, or the two combined in death. Obviously, this is highly conceptual in a manner that those who like a more concrete, literal stagy representation dislike, but it suits the nature of the opera, and certainly suits the nature of Wagner’s conceptual themes, without distracting from them or imposing a false reading. The performers fit well into the stage directions laid out for them – looking a little incongruous and a little uncomfortable at times with the eccentric mannerisms, but mostly finding a perfect accommodation between the words, the emotions and dramatic interaction with each other.

Iréne Theorin is fairly magnetic throughout as Isolde, capturing her haughtiness and conflicted feelings for Tristan in Act 1 with a degree of precision, and finding a similar level of emotion in the contradictory impulses of the ‘Liebestod‘ in Act 3. Through much of Act 2 she appears to be in a love-potion-induced trance, acting without volition, almost in a state of madness, which may not be how one would expect Isolde to be played, but her childish, playful eagerness to switch off the lights does capture a perfect sense of complete abandon to her condition to the disregard of any rational sensibility. Her singing is strong, only occasionally faltering, but a fine representation of her character nonetheless. It may take a while to warm to Robert Dean Smith as Tristan, but any doubts should be dispelled by his handling of the incredibly demanding final act soliloquy that he delivers magnificently with such impassioned yearning that you almost fear that he, like Tristan, is going to push himself over the edge. Michelle Breedt is a fine Brangäne, her singing strong, her acting in character throughout, and Jukka Rasilanen as Kurwenal delivers a touching performance, particularly in his sympathy for and fidelity to his master in the final act. If there are any minor irritations with interpretation and staging in the first two acts, all should be redeemed by Act 3, and that is certainly delivered here under the baton of Peter Schneider.

The Opus Arte Blu-ray looks good for the most part in terms of the 16:9 video transfer. There are some problems with the quality of the audio, but they are mainly down to the recording, positioning of the actors and the acoustics of the live performance on the Bayreuth stage. The minimal staging, the positioning of the performers and the surrounding walls give a somewhat echoing quality to the singing in places. In Act II’s “Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!” for example, with Theorin and Dean Smith backed up against the walls, the singing fails to rise above the orchestration. The orchestra isn’t ideally clear either and doesn’t make a great deal of use of the surrounds, tending to be mainly focussed towards a centre stage. Extras include an optional conductor camera visible in a small box at the bottom of the screen (a pointless feature when Bayreuth productions otherwise do their utmost to keep the orchestra and conductor invisible in line with the composer’s intentions), as well as an illustrated synopsis and a 25 minute making of that looks behind the scenes at the staging of the production at Bayreuth.