sat 13/07/2024

Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera

Strauss's opera reluctantly enters the Battle of Britain courtesy of a young German director

Kate Lindsey (Composer): 'wiry, intense and thoroughly excellent'All photographs: Alastair Muir

The Major-Domo promises fireworks during the Prologue of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos. Katharina Thoma, the director of Glyndebourne’s new staging, drops a bombshell - actually several bombshells. Glyndebourne’s wartime history (as a refuge for evacuees) would seem to have chimed with the darker implications of the opera within - namely, the Composer’s opera seria of the title.

So here we are, in these darkest of days, occupying the house of a wealthy nobleman for sure but not in Vienna or even Germany but in deepest Sussex. So why, one wonders, is everyone speaking German when all the bunting and RAF propaganda screams England? And why is the enemy bombing country estates anyway? An offload of surplus munitions on the way back to Germany?

It’s unlike me to be so literal, even pedantic, about this free and fanciful world of opera but when a director imposes such a specific layer of subtext onto what is essentially a delicious confection about two theatrical worlds colliding, and how the one informs and enriches the other, then such anomalies can rankle and irritate. But then again Julia Müer’s rather unprepossessing set hardly suggests realism and once the Vaudevillians (the commedia dell’arte element) arrive, led with showbizzy vivacity by Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta (pictured below right), all bets are off as to where we might be headed.

Jurowski and his trimmed-down LPO work wonders with Strauss's luminescent scoring

There is a key moment in this Prologue where Strauss and Hofmannsthal absolutely nail the essence of their conceit - and to her credit Thoma does too. This is the interlude where Zerbinetta and the Composer (the wiry and intense and thoroughly excellent Kate Lindsey) are alone and he begins to see the real woman behind the hoofer/comedienne facade while she in turn glimpses that elusive Mr Right. Her unexpected kiss, full on the lips, is a huge moment and one that Thoma intriguingly carries forward into the opera proper.

So gone - wiped out in the pre-dinner raid - is the makeshift set and drooping palm of Ariadne’s desert island (the palm, acting as a kind of barometer of the Composer’s wilting prowess, is but one instance of Thoma’s decidedly German humour). In the wake of catastrophe in this little corner of England the stately home is now a hospital where Ariadne (Soile Isokoski) pines away for her one true love in the valley of the shadow of death dutifully attended by her trio of nymphs turned nurses (Ana Maria Labin, Adriana Di Paola and Gabriela Istoc), while the composer, shell-shocked, traumatised, ponders the outcome of his score. The mournful nature of the unfolding opera sits well with the pall of the sick room and once we identify the Vaudevillians as members of ENSA there is point and purpose in their wholehearted attempts to raise everyone’s spirits.

The problem, I think, is that Thoma simply overworks her premise so that when Zerbinetta attempts to relate to Ariadne, woman to woman, in the ear-popping coloratura of her lecture on the joys of sexual promiscuity, for instance, the rudeness of Laura Claycomb’s teasingly-voiced multiple orgasms is so explicitly physical that Thoma seems to think it necessary not just to sedate but to straightjacket her, too. That's a bit of business too far, and for all that it is intricately tailored to the music there is overkill in her point-making - a young director flexing her creative muscle. I miss, too, the mythical element, so that Ariadne’s transfiguration in the arms of her one true love is almost mundane in its understatement.

Vladimir Jurowski and his trimmed-down London Philharmonic Orchestra work wonders with Strauss's luminescent scoring, always maintaining that very telling balance between intimacy and grandiosity, the world of musical theatre versus opera, the pit band that would be symphonic. Experience pays, too, in the casting of Thomas Allen as the Music Master and, most notably, his leading lady - the Prima Donna/Ariadne of Soile Isokoski. She may not now epitomise the glamour and vocal bloom we have come to expect of the role, but in a house this size her wholeheartedness and musicality shine through.

And who’d have imagined that her Bacchus (the brave but challenged Sergey Skorokhodov) would turn out to be the First of the Few? Not Strauss, not Hofmannsthal. But that’s why we love opera, isn’t it?



Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2009). Uneven revival of John Schlesinger’s 25-year-old production

Capriccio, Grange Park Opera (2010). Lively staging, stylish singing and a welcome intrusion of wartime reality

Salome, Royal Opera (2010). Angela Denoke's mercurial Salome (pictured below by Clive Barda) shimmers in Strauss's monstrously beautiful opera

Ariadne auf Naxos, Welsh National Opera (2010). Hoffmansthal's libretto is all about fidelity. This updating is faithful, up to a point

Angela Denoke as Salome at the Royal Opera HouseIntermezzo, Scottish Opera (2011). Soprano Anita Bader graces a Klimtian take on Richard Strauss's domestic comedy

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Mariinsky Opera (2011). Strauss's massive fairy tale makes a rare outing in Gergiev’s musically strong venture at the Edinburgh Festival

Der Rosenkavalier, English National Opera (2012). David McVicar and Edward Gardner deliver a riveting account of Strauss's popular opera with Amanda Roocroft as the Marschallin

Intermezzo, Buxton Festival (2012). Fine style in Strauss's comedy-with-feeling

Capriccio, Royal Opera (2013). Renée Fleming leads superlative cast in concert performance of Strauss's operatic debate

Elektra, Royal Opera (2013). Revival with Christine Goerke in the title role hits the horrid heart of the matter in Strauss's poleaxing masterpiece

Die Frau ohne Schatten, Royal Opera (2014). Compelling dream-interpretation of Strauss's myth graced by fine singing and Semyon Bychkov’s conducting

Der Rosenkavalier, Glyndebourne (2014). Richard Jones finds new order in rococo comedy for music, with Kate Royal as the Marschallin

Salome, BBC Proms (2014). Nina Stemme stuns with Donald Runnicles and the Deutsche Oper Berlin in a giddying account of Strauss's incredible score at the Proms

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera (2014). Two nymphs are the real revelation in this revival of evergreen hybrid

Salome, Symphony Hall, Birmingham (2015). Lise Lindstrom steals the show from Karabits and Bournemouth SO as a sensual Strauss anti-heroine in concert

Der Rosenkavalier, Royal Opera (2016). Robert Carsen's handsome production with Renée Fleming is elevated by superb orchestral playing


A German director, again. Without mentioning the fact that everything on the opera stage is about the force-fed decontextualisation of the modern German "tradition". I would rather speak about German decadence.

I fail to understand what you're trying to say, basso cantante, and maybe you could try to explain properly, but it doesn't look good. Imagine if instead of 'German' you'd put 'black', 'gay' or 'Jewish'.

Regietheater has become a cliché, yet we have here another director exporting German eurotrash of her country to the UK. The post-WW2 protest trash-theatre in Germany has become the mainstream, nowadays it is killing what still is left of beautiful national traditions and the audiences (and singers!) are force-fed with this decontextualised crap created by amateurs with no regard to the style, the language, the libretto, music, just to mention a few secondary things for modern opera direction. It did not originate in the UK, Italy or France, nor is a noticeable part of today's opera chiefs, dramaturgs and directors from this certain country or language area if the word "Germany" offends somebody.

There are plenty of productions from France, America and Britain - where the intellectual aspect of what you call regitheater is often derided - which fit the bill. Maybe it originated from Germany, but there have been outstanding exponents - Kupfer, Berghaus, Decker spring immediately to mind - and the cliched productions tend to be by the many weaker followers. Many of the regie aspects are clearly not represented in this production, in that it prefers a realistic time and place. But what worries me most is that you don't give any indication of having seen it (I haven't either, yet). Ditto the many furious railers against the 'Nazi' Tannhauser which was closed down recently.

I was disappointed to read the Telegraph critique before attending Ariadne but more so to find that the performance on Wednesday was even worse than I was led to believe. The Prologue, however, was most enjoyable. It was good to see Thomas Allen again and Kate Lindsey was an absolute delight. Her portrayal of the neurotic composer combined with her musicality and splendid voice was well nigh perfect. The commedia del arte troup and Laura Claycomb did not fail to entertain either, and left me anticipating Zerbinetta's bravura aria later, in the opera. The conceit of the time and setting of the prologue actually worked quite well for me, although the air raid was perplexing. As a piece of stage work, however, it was wonderfully executed. But sadly, and it is a big, big "but" the opera (ie act 2) just didn't work, to the point that it started to unravel at the end, and to my great surprise, for the first time ever in my experience at Glynedbourne, people pushed out before the curtain calls, mumbling and grumbling! There was just too much irrelevant nonsense going on. The conceit of a WW11 hospital just didn't work. We were supposed to see the opera that was so vividly discussed in the Prologue and what we did see was incomprehensible and totally out of context. I felt for Zerbinetta, her fizzling, sparkling, show- stopping aria was a damp squib, hardly surprising as she was expected to sing whilst being injected with a hypodermic, placed in a straitjacket and ravished lying down. It's a difficult coloratura piece and under such conditions one can understand if it was, sadly, not sung well. When Ariadne and Bacchus finally meet, Strauss abandons his baroque musings and winds his small orchestra up to Wagnerian proportions. Vladimir Jurowsky was up to the task. Both he and the LPO were excellent throughout. At times appropriately magisterial or coquettish bringing out that uniquely Straussian "palm orchestra" sound that puts a grin on the face of the audience. And how good it was to see the pianist as part of the concert party! But sadly the Wagnerian moments of Dramatic Soprano and Heldentenor were a bitter disappointment. I wont try and speculate why. Lets just hope it was an "off" night. I don't wish to sound like a "canary fancier" but its just that when two or more elements of gesamtkunstwerk fail, the whole unravels pretty quickly. I did stay for the curtain calls, although my intellect had left earlier. I wanted to give Miss Lindsey the accolade she deserved and thank Vladimir Jurowsky and the Orchestra for saving the evening. How we shall miss him.

Now that I've seen it twice for myself - first on Sunday, then on the livestream last night (well, most of it) - I have to say this is one of those rare occasions when Ed and I beg to differ. I can see how Thoma's idea for the opera proper might confuse a first-time visitor. But it was all carried through with magnificent discipline to what I found a very, very moving final duet. It no doubt helped that Skorokhodov was in much better voice: indeed, his was the best performance of this insance part I've ever encountered on stage. You do give respect to the hard work entailed; what miffs me is the general critical air elsewhere of 'didn't she read the libretto?' and even 'has she ever seen another production?' Anyway, I'm sure that despite all this, we have not seen the last of Katharina Thoma. I sincerely hope not. The cast and conducting, by the way, were uniformly excellent and hyper-imaginative on Sunday night.

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters