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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ariadne auf Naxos
Ariadne - Soile Isokoski
Bacchus - Johan Botha
Zerbinetta - Daniela Fally
Der Komponist - Sophie Koch
Der Haushofmeister - Peter Matic
Ein Musiklehrer - Jochen Schmeckenbecher
Harlekin - Adam Plachetka
Scaramuccio - Carlos Osuna
Brighella - Benjamin Bruns
Truffaldin - Jongmin Park
Ein Tanzmeister - Norbert Ernst
Najade - Valentina Naforniga
Dryade - Rachel Frenkel
Echo - Olga Bezsmertna
Ein Offizier - Daniel Lökös
Ein Perückenmacher - Won Cheol Song
Ein Lakai - Marcus Pelz
Vienna State Opera Orchestra/Christian Thielemann
rec. live, October 2014, Vienna State Opera House
ORFEO C996202 [73:35 + 55:06]

It says much about the present classical CD market that a conductor of the eminence of Christian Thielemann is so peripatetic. His set of Die Meistersinger which I reviewed recently (review) was on the Median Profil label, but this one is on Orfeo. In the old days such a conductor would have been the jealously guarded trophy of a single company with whom he may well have spent his entire career. Such permanent, exclusive contracts are now a thing of the past. This recording (like the Meistersinger) is also part of a rather longer, though still comparatively recent, status quo, being recorded live. The studio recordings that entirely dominated the 40 years after the LP was first introduced are also now as near to non-existent as makes no difference. Yet a third way in which this is a very modern product is that it has also been issued in DVD form on ArtHaus Musik 109398 (which I have not seen).

The title part of Ariadne is sung by one of the leading Strauss sopranos of the last 30 years, Soile Isokoski, who came to prominence as one of the finalists in the 1987 Cardiff Singer of the World competition. By 2014, when this performance took place, she was 57 years old, so we are not hearing her in her absolute prime, but there is nothing in this recording which in any significant way hints at a singer coming to the end of her career. The tone is still radiant and without strain at the top, though the vibrato is a little less tight than it had been. She perhaps never quite had the outstanding vocal quality of Gundula Janowitz (my own favourite Ariadne), Margaret Price or, in her very different way, Jessie Norman, but she never leaves one with a sense of second best. She can also be heard in the part on a DVD of a Glyndebourne performance from the year before, which I have not seen (review), but there does not seem to be any other CD issue of her in this part. I found her performance very fine but without quite the “size” necessary. Ariadne seems to me to be what you might call an “opera seria” character; there should be something monumental, archetypal, mythical about her, and Isokoski does not quite have this quality. Right from the beginning of the opera itself there is something a little small-scale, something simply human, that doesn’t quite fit the bill for me. The lack of Janowitz’s absolute vocal focus gives Isokoski a frailty and vulnerability. For example in “Ein Schönes war” the top B flat at “ging im Licht”, while being a good note, does not have radiant grandeur that Janowitz brings to it. Similarly when Bacchus enters and Ariadne mistakes him for Death, Isokoski does not have the hieratic solemnity for “O Todesbote, süß ist deine Stimme”. Having said that, she often sings beautifully and sculpts the line in “Es gibt ein Reich” with great poetry, responding to the words with much greater specificity than Janowitz, though again at the climactic “du nimmes von mir, an dich werd’ich mich ganz verlieren” she cannot manage the necessary con espansione. But this is to judge her by the highest standards; her performance is exceptionally good (her singing of the “Gibt es kein Hinüber” solo in the final duet is outstanding) and will seriously disappoint no-one, and you may well prefer a more human Ariadne.

The recording allows us to hear the Bacchus of Johan Botha, a tenor who was one of the finest of modern times in the German repertoire, and who died in 2016 only a few weeks after his 51st birthday. As far as I know this is the only issued performance of him in this role, and he is outstanding in his ability to cope with its cruel tessitura. It is often said that Strauss hated tenors and that this role was one of his bits of revenge on the species, and it does seem positively sadistic at times. Botha was perhaps no-one’s physical idea of a god and his size and immobility on stage did not make Coleridge’s “suspension of disbelief” easy, but far more importantly he sings the role with barely even a hint of strain, and this is a feat that few have managed. The voice is heroic in timbre and rock solid with no looseness in the vibrato on any of the numerous B flats, a number of which are the first notes of phrases. His diction is also excellent. It could be argued that there is opportunity for greater dynamic light and shade in the role, but he never bawls in the way that Rudolf Schock can in the Karajan/Schwarzkopf recording (review - though Schock is not mentioned, perhaps from kindness), and I find him tonally more attractive than James King in the Kempe/Janowitz (review) one. Without doubt this is one of the finest assumptions of the role on record.

The Zerbinetta is Daniela Fally, who is, I must confess, a new name to me, though she has apparently had a very successful career in Vienna since 2006, particularly in this role and the not-dissimilar Fiakermilli in Strauss’s Arabella. She is an excellent Zerbinetta with all the notes (though one or two of the highest take a little time before they are fully attained) and even has that real present-day rarity: a good trill. She has the huge misfortune, especially in Vienna, of having to sing in the shadow of the great Edita Gruberova, whose performance of the role at Covent Garden in 1987 (with a slightly past-her-best Janowitz) was one of the greatest, most complete performances of any role that I have ever seen. Fally is not in this class either vocally or in interpretation, but I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed by her. The audience is clearly delighted.

Sophie Koch’s Composer in the Prologue I found disappointing. The characterisation is not particularly vivid - for example the repeated “Gewesen” (“was” my friend) should be a passionate adolescent tantrum, but here goes for very little. Her enunciation of the text is also surprisingly poor. I doubt that even a native German speaker would be able to follow much of what she is singing. For example she swallows almost all the consonants in the line “Ich habe nichts mit dieser Welt gemein! Wozu leben in ihr?” (I have nothing in common with this world! Why live in it?).

The smaller parts are generally well taken. I particularly liked Adam Plachetka; he sings Harlekin’s little “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen” solo between the parts of Ariadne’s monologues most sensitively and poetically. Indeed, all the Comedia dell’arte group perform well and make both of their short scenes enjoyable rather the trial that they can be. Jochen Schmeckenbecher’s Musiklehrer is both touchingly paternal and believably world-weary. I found the Haushofmeister of Peter Matič disappointing; he seems terrified of being thought an OTT scene-stealer. Perhaps he was hilarious in the flesh, but on CD his part goes for nothing. The three nymphs’ little “Töne, Töne, süße Stimme” trio, which I find packs an emotional punch far beyond what its sublimated folksong music seems capable of delivering, is something of a disappointment too. This is particularly sad because Thielemann is clearly making a wonderful moment of it and the singers are trying their best for him, but they just don’t command the vocal purity that the music needs.

As with the Meistersinger I mentioned earlier, the true hero of this performance is Christian Thielemann. The hustle and bustle of the Prologue is not particularly his strong point, but once we are into the opera proper, he is superb. I have always loved Rudolf Kempe’s conducting of the EMI set with Janowitz, but Kempe is a much more reticent conductor than Thielemann and I found myself falling completely under his spell. Page after page I was blown away by the sheer beauty and, even more, the emotional and dramatic intelligence of the detail in his conducting. Every phrase seems to contain some individual but utterly convincing detail which never interrupts the flow but underlines the meaning of the text to perfection. The particular triumph is the end of the opera. This is often considered (and up until now I would have agreed) the weakest part of the score and an anticlimactic conclusion. Even Böhm does not solve the final duet’s problems as Thielemann does; he has understood it in way that I have never heard before. His slow, fluid, but always purposeful tempi make the last ten minutes of the opera one huge arc, and his moulding of every semiquaver, with both singers entirely at one with his concept, make it into the glorious, transcendent apotheosis that Strauss surely intended. If ever there was proof of Mies van der Rohe’s dictum that “God is in the detail”, this is it.

The recording is very fine with generally excellent balance between singers and orchestra. There is a very small amount of stage noise, but nothing remotely disturbing, and the only real sign of the audience is the applause after “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” and at the ends of the two parts. The booklet contains a brief essay on the opera’s composition, a plot summary and performer biographies, all in both German and English, and a few production photos. Unfortunately, yet again, there is no libretto of any sort, not even on the company website.

This is a set that I would not want to be without. I will still want to go to the Kempe or Böhm sets for Janowitz, but this set can stand alongside them.

Paul Steinson

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