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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos (1912)
Hildegard Hillebrecht (soprano) Primadonna, Ariadne; Jess Thomas (tenor) Tenor, Bacchus; Erik Fey (speaker) Major-domo; Paul Schöffler (bass-baritone) Music Teacher; Sena Jurinac (mezzo) Composer; Kurt Equiluz (bass) Officer; Jon van Kesteren (tenor) Dancing Master; Walter Raninger (tenor) Peruckenmacher; Herbert Lackner (bass) Footman; Reri Grist (soprano ) Zerbinetta; Gerd Feldhoff (baritone) Harlekin; David Thaw (tenor) Scaramuccio; Georg Stern (bass) Truffaldino; Gerhard Unger (tenor) Brighella; Lotte Schädle (soprano) Naiad; Claudia Hellmann (mezzo) Dryad; Lisa Otto (soprano) Echo
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/Karl Böhm.
Rec. live at the Kleines Festspielhaus, Salzburg, on August 21st, 1965. ADD


How privileged we are to be able to enjoy the fruits of 1960s Salzburg! Richard Strauss’s magnificent, dramatically virtuoso Ariadne auf Naxos is on offer with a cast that includes Sena Jurinac (Composer) and the somewhat under-rated (I always feel) Jess Thomas. Add to this a delightful Zerbinetta (Reri Grist) and that expert Straussian, Karl Böhm in the pit, and the result is magic. Perhaps it is more surprising that Ariadne herself is no super-name. In fact, Christa Ludwig was due to take the role here, and Hildegard Hillebrecht stood in at short notice.

This is actually a black-and-white Austrian Television telecast, preserved in the archives of ORF (Austrian Radio). Böhm gives an interpretation of the utmost sensitivity. The chamber-music feel is evident from the very outset, as is the light touch so necessary when characters from the commedia dell’arte are on the scene. Marvellously agile woodwind, also so necessary to this work, are a delight; no wonder, this is after all the Wiener Philharmoniker.

Of course, it is the Composer who provides much of the impetus of this Prologue. Here we have Sena Jurinac, strong of voice and also superb when affronted by the proposed goings-on. Jess Thomas is imposing as ‘The Tenor’ - a quality he will reinforce as Bacchus later.

The star of the show, though, is Zerbinetta and this remark applies throughout the entire composition. A gift in pert, cheeky looks, Reri Grist renders Strauss’s difficult lines as if they are no problem at all. She can sound on the thin side if a more legato, extended line is called for, yet the bulk of her part calls for roulade upon roulade, and here she is more than happy to oblige. Grist enunciates her words impeccably, even when at speed.

The encounter between Composer and Zerbinetta is here highly charged. Zerbinetta’s loneliness and the Composer’s comments on being misunderstood seem close to the composer’s (lower-case: the real one!) own heart. And is there any doubt that the Composer’s lines on Music as Holy Art are actually a statement of Strauss’s own belief?.

Throughout, Böhm’s pacing is near-perfect, so much so that one cannot believe it could be one any other way. This is so much more than a mere Prologue.

Staging for the Prologue takes us believably back-stage. For the Opera proper, evocation of exotic Naxos evidently posed more of a problem, but of course the artificiality aids the distanced effect.

The Overture to the Opera proper is vintage Böhm. Delicate, excellently balanced strings set the mythological scene, aided in due course by a well-balanced trio of Naiad, Dryad and Echo. Their trio is truly beautiful ... could there be a finer preparation for Ariadne’s entrance?

Hillebrecht impresses in her vocal range - a marvellously warm tone on the low, ‘Wo war ich?’ Her ‘Es gibt ein Reich’, possibly the single most famous part of Ariadne, might not quite exhibit the initial sense of wonder. Yet her announcement of what that realm actually is (‘Todesreich’) is well-rendered. Throughout this aria, the orchestra is so well handled; orchestra and singer later on rise together to a believable ecstasy.

Balancing ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ heard shortly afterwards, is Zerbinetta’s ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’, here delightfully deft, coquettish and underpinned by simply superb orchestral definition. Grist’s trills and her sense of phrasal shape are of the highest order, and her bow thereafter (interruptive to the dramatic impetus though it is) is thoroughly deserved.

Bacchus (Thomas) is lusty of voice, something that is clear even when he sings off-stage and the response of the Naiad, Dryad, Echo trio is simply stunning in its beauty. When he gets to the stage, his dress sense might, in reality, make you wish he’d stayed there; if someone dressed me in tights and a top that barely covered my bits, I’d be embarrassed. Yet vocally Thomas is as ardent as one could ask for and together with Ariadne they soar towards ecstasy. In fact Thomas has just the right heroic sound for this role ... if not the outfit.

Of course the interaction between Commedia dell’arte and opera seria is an interpretative challenge of the highest order, and one that Böhm meets with consummate skill. The members of the Wiener Philharmoniker play their hearts out for him.

Highly recommended. One of the best DVDs I have seen.

Colin Clarke


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