Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60 (1912)
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
The Music Master - Wolfgang Brendel (bass-baritone)
The Major-Domo - Waldemar Kmentt (spoken)
A Lackey - James Courtney (bass)
An Officer - Mark Schowalter (tenor)
The Composer - Susanne Mentzer (mezzo)
Bacchus, The Tenor - Richard Margison (tenor)
A Wigmaker - John Fiorito (tenor)
Zerbinetta - Natalie Dessay (soprano)
Ariadne, The Prima Donna - Deborah Voigt (soprano)
The Dancing Master - Tony Stevenson (tenor)
Harlekin - Nathan Gunn (baritone)
Brighella - John Nuzzo (tenor)
Scaramuccio - Eric Cutler (tenor)
Truffaldin - John Del Carlo (bass)
Najade - Joyce Guyer (soprano)
Dryade - Jossie Pérez (mezzo)
Echo - Alexandra Deshorties (soprano)
The Metropolitan Opera Chorus/Raymond Hughes
The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra/James Levine
Production - Elijah Moshinsky
Video director - Brian Large
rec. April 2003, Metropolitan Opera, New York.
Picture format 16:9. NTSC. LPCM stereo and DTS 5.0 surround. All regions.
Subtitles in German (original), English, French, Spanish and Italian
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD 6418679 [134:00]

James Levine has already recorded Ariadne auf Naxos on CD (DG 453 1122, 2CDs-for-1, with the Vienna Philharmonic) and DVD (DG 0730289, also at the Metropolitan Opera). Though he had first-rate support in both versions, the new recording can hold its head high in their company. You may think that he could probably direct this work in his sleep and still come out tops, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay are also pluralists in this opera, having featured in the same roles – Ariadne and Zerbinetta respectively – on the recording by Giuseppe Sinopoli made in Dresden in 2000 by DG and now an unbelievable bargain on Brilliant Classics 9084 (around £7.00 – see review).

I’m not sure why we’ve had to wait seven years for the DVD to be released, but I am pleased to see it follow so hard on the heels of the Chandos CD version, in English. Chandos have Christine Brewer who is superb in the title role and very ably supported. I recommended this set in the October 2010 Download Roundup (CHAN3168). The two versions are complementary, since Virgin present us with the opera in the original language, and particularly as the Chandos also contains a substantial bonus in the form of the suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with its connections with the opera. Both are thoroughly recommendable.

If you feel the lack of that Suite and would like to have it on Blu-ray or DVD, you could do much worse than the recent recording by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Vladimir Jurowski. My review of that version in Blu-ray format should appear online at about the same time as this Ariadne review and you can read William Hedley’s review of the DVD (Euroarts DVD 3078738 or Blu-ray 3078734, coupled with Strauss’s Metamorphosen and the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, with Hélène Grimaud).

I’m not sure whether Deborah Voigt or Natalie Dessay deserves the greater praise. Both are excellent but, since I normally associate Dessay with music earlier than Richard Strauss, I award the palm by a photo-finish to her. On reflection, the role of Zerbinetta, straight out of the Italian commedia dell’arte, along with her associates, is something of a baroque character. Strauss loved the music of that bygone age and imitated it in the Bourgeois Gentilhomme Suite, though what he made of the music of Lully - which he adapted and included there - is pure Strauss.

In praising Deborah Voigt’s singing and acting, I must raise the delicate subject of her size: the following year she was dropped by Covent Garden as over-large for the costume they intended her to fit in the role of Ariadne – shouldn’t the costume have fit the singer rather than the other way round with the management acting like some latter-day Procrustes, who stretched or lopped his ‘guests’ to make them fit his bed? She’s now back in action in a new slim-line version, but only size-ists will object to her 2003 self.

Just as important as their singing roles is the way in which Voigt and Dessay bring their characters credibly to life and particularly the way in which they interact with one another. Having enjoyed Ariadne in the past purely in audio format, I hadn’t realised how important that interaction is, as this version makes very clear, with Dessay just managing to raise the glimmer of a smile from Voigt. Earlier she had remained in stony isolation while Dessay has enjoyed some lively knockabout with Nathan Gunn’s Harlekin.

Susanne Mentzer as The Composer has a formidable list of predecessors. If she doesn’t quite match the best of them vocally or in autoritas, she manages to convey the youthful naivety of an artist who believes that her own talent should carry greater weight and who has to be gently persuaded to compromise. The premise is unrealistic – how could the two plots be spliced together in such short time? – but she and Wolfgang Brendel’s more experienced Music Master make us believe that it could. Waldemar Kmentt’s Haushofmeister or Major Domo is not as funny as Stephen Fry’s on CD – would that we could see him in the role – but he carries the sense of his own importance very well.

Richard Margison is a large-voiced Bacchus: if this abduction of Ariadne is more Wagnerian than Italian Renaissance*, which is as it should be, he is largely responsible. He doesn’t act much, but he doesn’t have much acting to do, merely carry Ariadne off.

The set, production and camera-work are excellent, with none of those silly gimmicks that have ruined my enjoyment of so many opera DVDs in the last couple of years. The action is often ‘busy’, especially in the Prologue – this really does look like the backstage of a production – but never distractingly so. The Metropolitan Opera is a big place for this intimate opera to be staged, but Elijah Moshinsky’s production benefits from the extra elbow-room without approaching the wide-screen evocation of the Met’s Bohème, not least when the supernatural figures appear on stilts in huge and elaborate eighteenth-century costumes.

The picture and sound are good, though Blu-ray would doubtless have been better in both respects. The subtitles in German and English are perfectly adequate. The notes are brief – and printed annoyingly in white on black – and there is no synopsis. That apart, if you are looking for a DVD of Ariadne – perhaps to supplement the Chandos CDs – this is highly recommendable. It’s very reasonably priced, too: you could have both the DVD and the CDs for around £26. These two versions have proved the nail in the coffin of my old Decca recording with Price, Kollo, Gruberova, LPO and Solti – it’s off to the charity shop.

* Forget the famous Titian painting in the London National Gallery, though I wonder if it was the gambolling bacchantes there that inspired Hofmannsthal to include the commedia dell’arte characters.

Brian Wilson

A strong contender – and less expensive than DVD rivals.