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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos (1912)
Jessye Norman ...Ariadne/Primadonna (Soprano)
Kathleen Battle ...Zerbinetta (Soprano)
Tatiana Troyanos ...Composer (Soprano)
James King ...Tenor/Bacchus (Tenor)
Franz Ferdinand Netwig ...Ein Musiklehrer (Baritone)
Stephen Dickson ...Harlekin (Baritone)
Allan Glassman ...Scaramuccio (Tenor)
Arthur Korn ...Truffaldin (Bass)
Anthony Laciura ...Brighella (Tenor)
Gweniet Bean ...Dryade(Soprano)
Barbara Bonney ...Nayade (Soprano)
Dawn Upshaw ...Drayade (Contralto)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Includes "bonus" clips of rehearsal
Recorded New York, March 1988
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 073 028-9 (1 DVD)
[no timing given]

This is a DVD of a televised live performance at the Metropolitan Opera House recorded in March 1988. Levine had already produced two years earlier a CD with the Vienna Philharmonic recorded in the Musikverein. The singers were different from the Met production apart from Kathleen Battle, a protégée of Levine’s, who sings her much acclaimed Zerbinetta. The DVD is marginally bigger gunned vocally with veteran Straussian James King as the Tenor/Bacchus and up and coming Barbara Bonney and Dawn Upshaw in the smaller parts of Naiad and Dryad. The main difference is Jessye Norman who's big, rounded, mezzoish sound is quite different from the keener edged tone of Tomowa-Sintow's Prima Donna/Ariadne. Who you prefer is a matter of taste.

In the DVD it is Jessye Norman who makes the strongest contribution. Her Ariadne is noble, deeply committed and moving. The camera is less than kind cosmetically, relentlessly focussing on a face perpetually pouring with sweat. However, this does add to the sense of emotional commitment, something of which James King cannot be accused. Now Bacchus is not an easy role. He comes on towards the end and without much warm up is soon plunged into a love duet involving some very taxing vocalising. And vocally James King, already well past sixty, copes remarkably well. I have heard some excruciatingly strangulated Bacchuses in my time and others who have been drowned out by heavyweight Ariadne’s. I've seen Jane Eaglen blast a Bacchus out of vocal sight. Not so James King. His trouble is the emotional commitment, standing around staring at his Ariadne with a kind of detached bemusement. Bearing in mind the opera's potentially powerful dénouement, this is a serious drawback. One feels sorry for Jessye Norman having to carry the emotion of the final scene on her own, which she does with great professionalism.

There is one other drawback for me. James Levine's conducting. Strauss's score is sumptuous and one wishes he had written more for these reduced, almost chamber-like resources. The Met orchestra under Levine supplies sumptuous playing to match. But with his tempi he overindulges to an extent which repeatedly results in a failure of momentum. Most of the time it is no more than a subtle rubato, but it starts towards the end of the introduction and inexorably takes its toll as time goes on. There is one passage that well illustrates how damaging this can be. Ariadne's great soliloquy in the "Opera" second half, "Es gibt ein Reich", is one of those great sweeping paragraphs so characteristic of Strauss where he aims unerringly throughout at an overwhelming home key resolution followed by a dying away, reaffirmation of the tonic. Strauss does that famously in the Rosenkavalier trio and here, similarly, as the music mounts its run up to the marvellous B flat homecoming the effect can lead one to consider it one of the great soprano moments in opera. It sounds so in Rudolf Kempe’s recording with Gundula Janowitz where the result is achieved by an absolutely steady, thrilling momentum. It is a lesson in Strauss conducting. Levine just cannot help holding slightly as he approaches climaxes, trying to squeeze the most out of the music – which it doesn’t, although to be fair he is less guilty than in his Vienna CD recording. Perhaps he loves the music too much for in the accompanying little, fascinating documentary which includes fly-on–the-wall clips of piano rehearsal of him and Norman, they both go into raptures about the score. "What fantastic music", says Levine. Well you can’t argue with that. It is not the only thing he eulogises about. When Kathleen Battle arrives for her turn he is heard to say, "My God, you look beautiful". You can’t argue with that either.

Overall the production fairs very well, the contrast between the four male harlequinaders and the three ethereal sounding women ( Naiad, Dryad and Echo) is effective as is the harlequinade stage business. This is a well tried production if ever there was one, being twenty eight years old at the time. When Karl Böhm, a great Strauss conductor, directed its first performance in 1962 it was, astonishingly, the US premiere.

Eighteen years before that, on 11th June 1944, Böhm conducted a performance of Ariadne at the Vienna Opera. As the war headed towards its close Vienna was in a bad state, its people suffering much hardship but there was a full house for this great occasion which was part of the composer’s eightieth birthday celebrations. Sitting there in his box, Strauss would have been to the audience, performers and those listening to the live radio broadcast, a legend in his lifetime (a young Solti meeting him at his villa two years later said it was like visiting God). A recording is available on CD, and penetrating through the limitations of that nearly sixty year old sound - not to mention all the Viennese coughing (in June?) – is an electricity that shivers the spine. There is a sense that the performers, especially Maria Reining and Max Lorenz in the final scene are, to put no finer point on it, busting their guts for Strauss. Overwhelming. What a birthday present. Somebody should give it to James Levine for his birthday.

John Leeman


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