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Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists, Kammerorchester Basel. Conductor: Stefan Anton Reck.  Palacio Euskalduna de Bilbao. 18.10.2008. (JMI) 

Production Gran Teatre del Liceu.
Direction: Uwe Eric Laufenberg (original) James Mcnamara (revival)
Sets: Tobias Hoheisel
Costumes: Jessica Karge
Lighting: Wolfgang Moyses

Ariadne: Adrianne Pieczonka
Bacchus: Klaus Florian Vogt
Zerbinetta: Valentina Farcas
Composer: Michelle Breedt
Music Master: Konrad Jarnot
Dance Master: Peter Bronder
Harlequin: Iván Paley
Echo: Marta Ubieta
Dryade: Alexandra Rivas
Najade: Cristina Obregón
Scaramuccio: Markus Brutscher
Brighella: Mikeldi Atxalandabaso.

Truffaldino: Ante Jerkunica
Lackey: José Manuel Díaz
Majordomo: Götz Argus

In April 1999 ABAO gave their final opera performance at the old Coliseo Albia and it was Ariadne auf Naxos, the first opera by Richard Strauss ever given in Bilbao. I am sure that many will remember the event,  for the triumph will linger long in the memory and the performances of Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay, as Ariadne and Zerbinetta, will not easily be forgotten.

Almost nine years later ABAO again gives us Ariadne auf Naxos, trying to repeat the great triumph of the former occasion. The presence of Adrianne Pieczonka, Diana Damrau and Klaus Florian Vogt in the cast represents almost a dream team for any opera house in the world. Regretfully, Diana Damrau cancelled her commitment with Bilbao in order to sing Lucia at the Metropolitan and this was not a minor matter. What could Bilbao do? It is not the first time that this has happened and it will not be the last. This month Oviedo had exactly the same problem with Inva Mula and La Bohème. For us in Spain,these were  great losses.

I saw this production in Barcelona six years ago, when Edita Gruberova sang Zerbinetta for the last time there. As usual, the Prologue takes place in a large hall in the palace of the richest man in Vienna, with a profusion of marble and doors. In the opera itself,  the back wall opened and we could see a beach. The lighting was good and the costumes attractive and colourful. The biggest problem with Mr Laufenberg’s direction is that he seems to fear an empty stage, so much so that he continually places extras on the stage almost all the time, which often disturbs the singing because the extras move around continuously! Ultimately this spoiled the wonderful music of the final duet of Ariadne and Bacchus, where everything excepting the music and the singers, including the nymphs, was superfluous and disturbing.

The musical direction was in the hands of Stefan Anton Reck, who conducted a wonderful Freisch
ütz here in 2001. His interpretation was very good, and well up to the standard of the aforementioned Weber and I am glad to have heard this conductor's  work again. The Basel Kammerorchester was very good in the pit, but it’s a pity is that the Euskalduna pit can only hold a group of this size although it is fine  when the opera does not require a large orchestra.

Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka is one of most important artists working today and her Ariadne was simply superb. Last July I wrote about her Ariadne in Munich (with Damrau as Zerbinetta) and I well remember the audience’s appreciation of both ladies. This performance equalled that of Munich. When Ariadne is sung with such beauty, and in such a natural way, everything seems to be so easy that the audience does not realize just how exceptional she is. Here we heard a truly wonderful performance from a great artist in her prime.

Bacchus is one of the most difficult tenor roles because of its high tessitura - How often is it referred to as the impossible role? - but  Klaus Florian Vogt is an outstanding. I do not see any other tenor today able to better essay the part. Once again, perhaps Bilbao audiences, little used to this music, did not realize the role's difficultiesand Vogt deserved a far better reception than he received. Despite his costume he really did seem like a God on stage. 

The Rumanian soprano Valentin Farcas, as Zerbinetta, who substituted for Diana Damrau, moved easily and was precise in “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” but she was the weakest of the four main singers. Zerbinetta demands an easy high soprano who must also have a strong middle range; more Queen of Night than Pamina, more Konstanze than Blondine. Although Ms Fracas has the high notes, but without some of the power, she does not really have the voice needed to sing Zerbinetta. When you look at the roles she has sung this year – Pamina, Blondine, Adina, Adele, Musetta and Olympia – you realize that Zerbinetta is too much for her.

South African Michelle Breedt made a good interpretation of the Komponist. She sang with much taste and was quite good in her interpretation of the aria that closes the Prologue. Her voice is not too large, but she is an accomplished performer.

In the secondary roles, Konrad Jarnot sang the Music Master without making much of an impression, and Peter Bronder was very good as the Dance Master. In the trio of nymphs the best performance came from Alexandra Rivas as Dryade, Marta Ubieta was somewhat inconsistent as Echo and Cristina Obregón (Najade) was a little shrill in the higher register. Iván Paley was distinctly insufficient as Harlekin. The rest of Zerbinetta’s troupe, tenors Mikeldi Atxalandabaso (Brighella) and Markus Brutscher (Scaramuccio) were remarkable but Ante Jerkunica was somewhat coarse as Truffaldino. Jose Manuel Diaz made a very competent lackey in the Prologue.

As usual, Bilbao boasted a full house, and the production, cast and orchestra were all well received.

José M Irurzun

Picture © Moreno Esquivel

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