Method in its madness: Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne

Ariadne auf Naxos performed by Glyndebourne Opera

Ariadne auf Naxos performed by Glyndebourne Opera

To say that the 2013 Glyndebourne production of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos has received “mixed” reviews would be an understatement. The reviews have, in fact, been terrible. So terrible, that even Glyndebourne could only fish out a 4-star, not a 5-star, review to put on their website, and that only from the august operatic tome that is the Daily Mail. Even the Guardian, which ran several early profile-raising pieces on the production, and actually streamed it live from their website last night, panned it in advance (nice one, guys). Meanwhile, on the message boards of the Glyndebourne homepage, the home team are either martyring themselves deliberately, or else no one at Glyndebourne knows how to delete user comments once they’ve been posted: grumpy Mrs Trellises from North Wales abound, whingeing about the production (“a disappointment… daft… irrelevant… a travesty…”) as well as everything else, from the traffic on Sussex roads to the (alleged) discomfort of the stalls seats (! – they are comfortable). The occasional, brave, audience member puts their head over the parapet to say they liked it: everyone else bashes the hell out of Katharina Thoma’s concept (and one even throws in an ungentlemanly aside about Soile Isokoski’s age, for good measure).

Well, I would like to join that small and fearless band above that parapet, and here goes: I saw this infamous Ariadne (in a live stream, at the Clapham Picturehouse), and I absolutely loved it. It’s a brilliant, daring, beautiful production. The music is gorgeous, the singing is sublime, most of the acting is superb, and the setting, while not traditional, is visionary. Thoma brings the major preoccupation of Strauss’ work, the relationship between art and real life, to the fore: how art can distract us, in a selfish way, from grim reality (fiddling while Rome burns), but also how art can heal us, and help us to understand or make sense of life’s (sometimes senseless) chain of events.

The journey from despair to hope, made, in this production, by the Composer, Ariadne and Bacchus in the Opera proper (after the interval), is a shining example of that slow renegotiation with reality which must come after a terrible catastrophe – physical or psychological – before one can rejoin the ‘real world’ again, where sometimes art makes ‘better’ – i.e. more bearable – sense of life. This, for Strauss, is the vindicating power of art: Thoma’s interpretation makes this power literal.

The Prologue, in this production, is still reasonably faithful to the original concept: in a grand country house in England in WW2, not entirely unlike a certain country house in Sussex where a rich man gave operas as entertainment to his friends (where could that be?), preparations are being made for an opera, the debut work of a fervid young composer, to be staged as an after-dinner entertainment. But the opera, a searing tragedy entitled “Ariadne auf Naxos”, is not the only treat on the rich man’s menu: he’s also booked a troupe offering much lighter entertainment, including razzle dazzle, catchy numbers, and possibly even a glimpse of thigh. The two companies are scathingly dismissive of one another: high art is outraged by low art, low art decries high art; neither is keen on the double-bill, and the young Composer, already neurotic, goes demented at the prospect of a shared billing with a burlesque troupe. But the final blow is yet to come: as dinner is running over, and because the fireworks at 9pm sharp must not be delayed under any circumstances whatsoever, the two companies must share not just the evening, but the stage – and perform simultaneously. Cue diva tantrums and artistic strops on all sides, as egos explode in a series of biting caricatures which are as true as they are hilarious: the comedians despair of ever getting a laugh out of an audience bored to tears by a flat tragic opera; the composer considers starving, rather than have his masterpiece desecrated.

Strauss and Hofmannsthal (his librettist) make a brilliant point here. We in the audience, ourselves, are the rich man: we have paid money to be entertained, and we expect entertainment in return for our money. All the work that happened before we arrived to take our seats: the compromises, the imagined aims of the piece, the rehearsal process, the rows, the skill, the private vendettas overcome by tactful company managers, are not our problem; we want entertainment, and we expect to get it, because we’ve paid. The absurd nature of this ‘transaction’ is really brought out at this moment: is it fair to pay someone ‘to make us laugh’ or, indeed, ‘to make us cry’? What if they don’t want to do that – but have something more important to tell us? What, indeed, if they want to tell us something we don’t want to hear? [And still expect us to pay for it?] And what, indeed, if we want the impossible: Ariadne’s anguish, but with punchlines and dancing-girls? Surely, if we’re paying… There is an impossible horizon of expectation here which, if viewed squarely, would probably put all directors off, forever, from directing anything at all. In a humourous side glance, Strauss and Hoffmansthal expose the fears of all creators of art: that their work will be unappreciated, unwanted or, worst of all, misunderstood. [Something Katharina Thoma has had to put up with a great deal, recently.]

Back in the opera: as the rows give way to quick cuts and hurried compromises between the companies, a sudden air raid brings everyone into a world of very different, very real problems. Bombs drop. The house catches fire. Bits of masonry begin to fall. This is not a metaphor (as it so easily could have been, in a less intellectually disciplined production) for the destruction of the Composer’s creation: it is, rather, a violent restatement of reality into the artistic mess. Hysteria breaks out. People run for cover. And our last glimpse, as the curtain falls, is the terrified Composer, crouched over his score, about to be struck by a falling beam.

We awake (after the interval) in the same house, which has now been turned (á la Downton) into a wartime nursing home (as Glyndebourne itself was): and guess what – the patients are our old friends the opera company (no news on whether the butler ever made it: he deserves a special mention for his unflappable poise and insinuating nastiness in the Prologue). As the three nurses (in a divine trio) quietly soothe the patients, they lament the state of Ariadne, and we realise that the Composer’s opera has already begun. The bewildered Composer, wandering around in his pyjamas with a nasty graze on his brow, clutching his score like a child’s comforter, also realises, and is enchanted: whether what follows happens solely in his mind, or in actual reality, is (I think) up to you, and the rest of the production works well whichever view you take. [Personally, I’m going for a bit of both.] Our diva (played and sung beautifully and convincingly by Soile Isokoski – I don’t care how old she is, she’s glorious) awakes and ‘is’ Ariadne. Her grief, her abandonment, her sense of isolation are all very real. And the opera we have paid to see is suddenly, unexpectedly underway. Art has overwhelmed life – or life has become art.

This, by the way, is what made everybody (i.e. the critics, Mrs Trellis and pals) so very cross. Usually, when this work by Strauss is performed, the Prologue is one thing, the Opera another: the Prologue sets up the artificiality of the act of opera, and the Opera bears it out, but transforms it (into something beautiful and important, cf. the most recent ROH production, which did this to excellent effect a few years ago). In other words, we ‘should’ see the Opera as the rich man ‘sees’ it: a performance on a stage which is, consciously, a performance on a stage. But what we get with Thoma is an opera which is both real and unreal, both ghost and body, both theoretical and practical: the Composer grows from shaken little boy to confident artist, and Ariadne moves from suicidal despair to joyous life: they both “recover”, and the vehicle and expression of their recovery is the Composer’s Opera, alive through them on whatever level of reality you prefer (subconscious or actual).

So, to evaluate whether what Thoma has done here is fair to Strauss, we should ask: what was Strauss’ intention in making Ariadne? We know he wanted to unite opera seria (tragic opera based on myth, with Ariadne as a perfect example) and opera buffa (specifically by employing characters from the Commedia dell’Arte, Renaissance stock characters contemporary with opera’s earliest beginnings). We know he hoped, by combining these elements, to forge a new kind of opera – something at once human and sublime; affecting, and entertaining; timeless and contemporary. He also wanted to set himself a fiendish musical challenge in bringing these two together, and the constant changes of tempi, colour and mood in this music are magnificent testament to this.

So much for Strauss’ intentions; how does the shape of the opera bear them out? By deconstructing the very unity he achieves: by allowing both factions (seria and buffa) to be present, to be obvious, to argue with and snipe at and cajole each other throughout the Prologue, before uniting them in a thoroughly ‘staged’ way which encourages the audience to track and note their interplay in the Opera phase, to compare their contributions, and to appreciate them individually when seeing them together. Effectively, the Prologue charges the exchange: the Opera releases that charged energy. For the whole point of the Prologue is, surely, to engage us in Strauss’ forthcoming experiment; we are his audience, his judges. The success of his experiment will rest with us. The point of the Opera is to surprise us by how charming, how powerful and how true this new art form can be: we might think it’s going to be one big messy self-contradictory nightmare after the Prologue, but what we get is, in fact, a rhapsody of tenderness, sincerity and elegance. The experiment – musically – is a triumph. But opera is no mere concert. And Strauss, in Ariadne, was forging a whole new way for opera to be: inclusive, emotionally boosting as well as draining, amusing as well as thought-provoking. And, crucially, he drew the audience inside this process with him: his experiment happens as much inside our heads as it does on the stage.

In these terms, is Thoma’s interpretation radical? Yes. But is it faithless, or contradictory? No. Thoma’s ‘play’ with the ‘reality’ of opera complements Strauss’ deconstruction, and follows from it. We may not be watching a set-scene-production after the interval, but we are still watching the opera, it is still happening, and if anything the two sides, seria and buffa, high and low, art and life, are even more closely woven together: but still, satisfactorily, distinct. The experiment has simply had an added catalyst; it has not changed its aim.

Moreover, there are strong traditional arguments to defend this production’s choices. Just because it hasn’t been done to Strauss’ Ariadne before, doesn’t mean Thoma’s approach doesn’t have good aesthetic and intellectual foundations.  The depiction of the asylum as Ariadne’s island of isolation, for example, is acute and powerful: we might also think of Tom Rakewell in Bedlam in the final act of The Rake’s Progress, we might think of Home by David Storey, we might think of Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. It’s also eminently fitting to the myth: Bacchus is the god of ecstasy, of ‘standing outside yourself’, of the mind-altered state; Ariadne is demented by grief, and thus in the perfect state to receive him, and a mental hospital is an ideal backdrop. Bacchus is, in his turn, the right god to bring her back, to rehabilitate her disorientated mind, and Thoma creates the perfect context for this mutual healing and learning.

There’s also a nice joke, in keeping with Strauss’ interplay between high art and low art: the ‘high’ artists are all destroyed by the disaster, and need to recover; the ‘low’ artists seem to have bounced back pretty quickly (quickly enough to be working for ENSA and visiting the nursing home before the graze on the Composer’s head has had time to heal, anyway). Does this mean that high art ISN’T all that useful after all? …Low art, meanwhile, has its own problems: Zerlinetta’s extraordinary coloratura aria (in a wickedly choreographed scene) sees her confined in a straitjacket as her pathological and predatory sex addiction takes hold; it is an inspired piece of feminism to allow Zerlinetta, as well as Ariadne, her own griefs and sorrows, letting her move from tart to tortured victim – a perfect counterpoint to Ariadne, Zerlinetta is driven mad not by faithful grief but by a desperation to please which enslaves her to all men indiscriminately – in Thoma’s enlightened eyes, an equal tragedy.

There is also a delicious pun in the background of the overall setting: just as Strass and Hofmannsthal use myth to ‘elevate’ their opera seria, Thoma’s setting reflects how we ourselves ‘mythologise’ this wartime period as a time of moral sacrifice and heroic ideals: myth for the modern age. Why else have we all started putting up bunting again?

In conclusion, Thoma’s production certainly refashions this opera: but in a way which makes it more vivid, more real, and more powerful – exactly what a good, new production should do for a discerning audience. As she proves, there is no better place to question the vanity of art – or illustrate its ultimate power – than against a backdrop of violence.

Tuesday 4th June 2013

In a live feed at the Clapham Picturehouse