Viva – Ariadne auf Naxos (Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden)

In Classical Music, Opera, Review, Richard Strauss on February 26, 2012 at 7:46 pm

Review – Saturday 25 February 2012

Ariadne/Prima Donna – Renée Fleming
The Composer – Sophie Koch
Zerbinetta – Jane Archibald
Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith
The Music Teacher – Eike Wilm Schulte
Majordomo – René Kollo
Harlequine – Nikolay Borchev
Scaramuccio – Kenneth Roberson
Truffaldino – Steven Humes
Brighella – Kevin Conners
The Dancing Master – Christian Baumgärtel
Lackey – Roman Grübner
Naiad – Christina Landshamer
Dryad – Rachel Frenkel
Echo – Lenneke Ruiten

Director & Set Designer – Philippe Arlaud 

Costumes – Andrea Uhmann
Conductor – Christian Thielemann
Staatskapelle Dresden

Having seen The Met’s production of Götterdämmerung, as a HD live transmission a few weeks ago it seemed but a small step to watch a live stream of an opera via my laptop from the comfort of my own home.

It is something I have always considered doing but it wasn’t until I stumbled upon that I decided it was time. And it had everything to do with lure of Ariadne auf Naxos from the Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden. Plus the fact that my MacBook Pro has a rather generous screen.

First things first. is an exemplary service and technically the live stream was faultless. Good value at about 7€ a per month a quick scan of its catalogue persuaded me to take out a subscription – even if some of the performances and recitals are currently geoblocked in the UK.

However the main driver for watching the performance was Renée Fleming’s role debut as Ariadne/The Prima Donna. And having seen her live as the Marschallin and Madeleine, the Countess in Capriccio she did not disappoint. I have said it before, Renée Fleming is a brilliant Strauss interpreter – his vocal lines suit her perfectly, and over the years her voice has developed an even warmer and burnished tone throughout its range without losing any of its flexibility. Es gibt ein Reich was simply beautiful – and Fleming demonstrated not only the smoothest of legato phrasing but complete control of the dynamic range of the scene with light and dark shading of her voice. However while this was for me the highlight of the evening – when she sang ‘totenreich’ it sent a shiver down my spine – hers was a faultless performance throughout. In particular her final duet with her Bacchus – Robert Dean Smith – was wonderful, again with not even a hint of strain.

I had previously seen Sophie Koch at Covent Garden – first as Octavian and then in her role debut as Brangäne in Loy’s much-maligned – but personally loved – production of Tristan und Isolde. I do hope ROH revive it. As The Composer – looking somewhat like Charlie Chaplin to me – she had a pretty convincing grasp of the taxing vocal line that Strauss had written for the character. However there were times when there was clearly strain at the top of the voice and occasionally a more fluid legato line was wanting. However a strong performance nonetheless.

The surprise of the evening was Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta. Not only must the soprano who takes on this role be a formidable singer, she must also be a good actor. Ms Archibald had both in spades. Not only did she inhabit the character completely – flirtatious, vivacious and, to me at least, more than a little wise – but she had great stage presence. Even over broadband. And vocally she was impressive. Her performance of Grossmächtige Prinzessin! was not only vocally impressive but intelligently performed. Quite rightly she was applauded at the end of the scena and at the end of the performance.

Similarly it was great to see The Majordomo reprised by René Kollo. Often taken – and usually with great aplomb – by actors Kollo brought his vast experience, including the insight of singing Bacchus himself, to the role. Masterful.

Strauss has never been kind to his tenors. I think of The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten for example, and similarly in Ariadne auf Naxos he doesn’t seem to warm to them much. The vocal line often sits uncomfortably high for many singers but in Baden-Baden Robert Dean Smith acquitted himself brilliantly. Vocally clear and bright his final duet with Ms Fleming was, as I have said already, wonderful. You could almost believe they were wandering off into the sunset.

It’s often easy to forget that – possibly more than his other operas – Ariadne auf Naxos is an ensemble piece from the very beginning. And the ensemble at the Festspielhaus was excellent. However special mention must go to Roman Grübner for his clear voice and slick acting as The Lackey, he three nymphs – Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel and Lenneke Ruiten – and the comedia dell’arte inspired troupe – Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners as well as Christian Baumgärtel’s Dancing Master.

And what of the production? This is the fourth production I have seen. I’ve watch the Metropolitan Opera production on DVD and many moons ago saw the production at English National Opera in the early 1990s (quite possibly my first exposure to the work as well as to Richard Strauss). More recently I saw the production at Covent Garden complete with its rising floor.

I have to admit I enjoyed the Baden-Baden production. It was unfussy and simple and clearly Phillipe Arlaud was more than inspired, it seemed, by Hollywood. I have already mentioned Koch’s Chaplin-esque Composer but even Renée Fleming had the hint of a 1950s starlet about her. Although her outfit in the Opera reminded me tangentially of two unrelated things. Firstly her look brought to mind Elizabeth Connell who sadly died recently. But also of the costume allegedly worn by Mary, Queen of Scots for her execution – a black gown hiding a Catholic-martyr red dress beneath. And Zerbinetta has something of the Sally Bowles about her.

And clichéd though it might be, the sight of Ariadne and Bacchus walking off into the night was simple and effective.

It all worked and I don’t think Arlaud deserved the boos when he came on stage.

The conductor, Christian Thielemann, is more than an accomplished interpreter of Strauss and he led the Staatskapelle Dresden throughout with great distinction and clear love for the score. And while it might be almost impossible to judge this from a live stream to a laptop, there was clearly a strong connection between the pit and the ensemble on stage.

So a night of firsts. Ms Fleming’s first ever Ariadne, and I hope that one day I will see her perform the role live on stage. For me, my first ever live-to-laptop streaming. And it’s definitely something I will be doing again. I can’t say it will ever replace the thrill, excitement and atmosphere of a live performance but time and money preclude me from attending every thing I might want to see.

And I heartily recommend that everyone sign up for

A great find.

  1. May well take out a sub – I wonder how one proves one is under 25?
    Have just managed to view most of it by clicking along the time bar at the top – that Grand was scarily balanced.
    Fabulous Fleming!

  2. I didn’t know about this service: thanks for pointing it out. I may well end up subscribing too. Certainly this Ariadne sounds like it’s worth hearing!

  3. […] in flexibility or evenness throughout her range. I think back most recently to her Ariadne in Baden Baden under Thielemann or her concert performance of the Vier Letzte Lieder with […]

  4. […] the Prima Donna and heroine of the title in Baden Baden’s recent and excellent production of Ariadne auf Naxos for example – and Mozart as well as, but a lesser extent, the bel canto composers. Even her […]

  5. […] of my most memorable concerts of the year. In February she made her debut as Ariadne/Prima Donna at Baden-Baden, in an intelligent and beautifully nuanced production by Philippe Arlaud. She is today’s Strauss […]

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