Richard STRAUSS (1864 - 1949)
Ariadne on Naxos (1916)
Complete with Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme
Prologue: Stephen Fry (spoken) - Major Domo; Christine Brewer (soprano) - The Prima Donna; Robert Dean Smith (tenor) - The Tenor; Alice Coote (mezzo) -Composer; Alan Opie (baritone) - Music Master; John Graham-Hall (tenor) - Dancing Master; Paul Keohone (bass) - A Wigmaker; Dean Robinson (bass) - A Footman; Declan McCusker (tenor) - An Officer
Commedia dell’arte players: Gillian Keith (soprano) - Zerbinetta; Roderick Williams (baritone) - Harlequin; John Graham-Hall (tenor) - Scaramuccio; Matthew Rose (bass) - Truffaldino; Wynne Evans (tenor) - Brighella
Opera seria: Christine Brewer (soprano) - Ariadne; Robert Dean Smith (tenor) - Bacchus; Anita Watson (soprano) - Naiad; Pamela Helen Stephen (mezzo) - Dryad; Gail Pearson (soprano) - Echo
Scottish Chamber Orchestra/Sir Richard Armstrong
rec. Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 17-21, 23-25, 27-28 January and 13 May 2010
CHANDOS CHAN 3168 [75:11 + 77:43]
There is no shortage of recordings of this delightful opera. Wikipedia lists thirteen sets and that’s far from all. Two of my favourite recordings are missing, for instance: Rudolf Kempe (EMI), recorded in Dresden in 1968 and Kurt Masur (Philips), recorded twenty years later in Leipzig. In December 2008 I reviewed the Kempe set and used the Masur recording for comparison. The review is here. The new Chandos set is unique insofar as it is the only recording in English - the translation is by Christopher Cowell - and thus it will probably be ruled out by readers who must have the original. But that would be a pity, since it has a lot to offer.
The sound quality on Kempe’s analogue recording is excellent for its day; EMI were at the forefront more than forty years ago. The digital sound on Masur’s recording offers even wider dynamics and more than twenty years after that Chandos may be a notch further ahead. It is in every respect a well balanced sound, every detail in the orchestra can be heard and savoured and the voices are beautifully caught.
The Scottish Chamber Orchestra may not be as famous as the two then East German orchestras but under Sir Richard’s experienced leadership they deliver Strauss playing of superb refinement and tempos are well judged. A special treat is the 35 minute suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, played before the opera. Strauss pasticcio reveals the composer’s love for baroque music but the sound world is that of his own time. Interestingly, although my shelves are crammed with CDs and LPs I couldn’t find a single recording of this music and though I must have heard it some time I had no recollection of it. Without comparison I can only declare that the playing can hardly be bettered and the music is ravishing.
For Ariadne on Naxos, Chandos have gathered a cast that can challenge any of the earlier sets. The singers, from both sides of the Atlantic, are well inside their roles and we get glorious singing from the principals. Christine Brewer must be ranked among the foremost dramatic sopranos today and she is a radiant Ariadne with beautiful tone and magnificent fortes, but even more impressive is her ravishing soft singing. Alice Coote’s Composer also impresses greatly and the Canadian soprano Gillian Keith has all the high notes and the technique to rip off Zerbinetta’s devilishly long and difficult aria - Your gracious Royal Highness in the English translation. Bacchus is another role that puts the singer to test: requires a Heldentenor but with lyrical capacity as well. James King on the Kempe set has the heroic quality but lacks lyrical charm, Paul Franz for Masur has lyricism in abundance but also some heroic ring. Robert Dean Smith on the Chandos set has a somewhat rough start in the prologue but then he sings wonderfully. One of the leading Tristans of today he also has the roundness of tone one normally only hear from much lighter voices. Together with Ben Heppner on the Sinopoli recording (DG) he now leads the Bacchus field on records. Alan Opie is a strong Music Master and it is indeed remarkable how well preserved his voice is; he turned 65 just a few weeks after the recording was made! Roderick Williams’ Harlequin also holds his own against the competition. We shouldn’t forget either Stephen Fry’s haughty Major-Domo.
There are many excellent recordings of this opera. Besides those already mentioned there is the Karajan recording with Schwarzkopf in the title role from the mid-1950s and even older is the Böhm recording on DG from a performance specifically mounted on the composer’s 80th birthday. The new Chandos can confidently be listed among that select company.
This can confidently be listed among that select company of excellent Ariadnes.
see also review by Simon Thompson