A new production of Ariadne auf Naxos is a major draw in itself, but a queue for standing room whose end is on the other side of the opera house is news even in Vienna, especially when the performance is not the première, but the fourth in a run of five and also the one that Franz Welser-Möst left to Jeffrey Tate, who has conducted the piece to positive reviews before. But with no rehearsals and a pit full of substitutes, he found himself unfairly challenged by scratchy violins, impure brass and winds, and botched entries from all directions. While it is true that the conductor is ultimately responsible for the performance, the poor standard did not reflect at all well on the Staatsoper, which considers itself one of the world’s leading opera houses and yet still routinely puts on under-rehearsed performances. The Viennese know which revivals to expect less of based on a quick look at casting, but for problems of quality to impinge on a brand new production still with its première cast is a real low. Ideally this performance would have been scheduled for after the New Year’s Day concert with Welser-Möst and the Vienna Philharmonic.
The good news is that things improved after the intermission and that the singers were undaunted by the circumstances: Krassimira Stoyanova gave a brilliant performance with flawless German diction in her role debut as the prima donna and the audience was thrilled to discover that she can do more than die beautifully, vocally speaking (Desdemona, Mimì, Rachel), being a great comedienne as well. Contrasting her golden voice with silvery tone was Daniela Fally as Zerbinetta, who probably makes the Staatsoper audience less nostalgic for Edita Gruberová with every performance. Unfortunately, the troupe surrounding her was no match, with Adam Plachetka’s Harlequin coming across as pretty listless.
Very engaging, on the other hand, was Christine Schäfer’s Composer. One might have wished for more volume at times, but her house debut otherwise went very well, with crystal-clear intonation and diction. I prefer a mezzo in this trouser role, but how the two soprano voices sounded almost the same in the scene where Zerbinetta charms the composer into dropping his objections to the dance piece given with his opera was interesting – and perhaps what Strauss intended when he asked for a soprano. Beautifully blended, too, were the voices of the nymph trio.
The most applauded man of the night was Peter Matić’s Major-Domo, who delighted in snobbishly humiliating the artists with his master’s weird orders. Stephen Gould’s (Bacchus) clarion instrument is an experience, though sometimes more agility would be welcome. Norbert Ernst’s articulate Dance Master made more of an impression than Jochen Schmeckenbecher, in his solid rendition of the Music Master.
The production is by Sven-Eric Bechtolf, who landed a hit with his staging of the rarely-given 1912 version of Ariadne auf Naxos and a different cast at the Salzburg festival earlier in the year – and expectations of how it would translate to the standard version from 1916 were not disappointed, as the applause clearly showed. The dramaturgical concept centred on a bit of a romantic relationship with Zerbinetta and the composer, which is solid idea but at the same time has been done before. What I liked best was the idea of using three partly disassembled grand pianos as the desert island in the opera. But at the same time it triggered the question of why the composer has to accompany Zerbinetta on a piano in a modern production, when there is hardly anything as uninteresting to music lovers as someone feigning to play an instrument (Siegfried’s horn call and air guitar contests aside). Also, the audience on stage for the opera part leaves many seats unoccupied, which rather stresses the size of the Staatsoper stage rather than coming up to the original concept of Ariadne as a chamber opera.
Responsible for the set and costumes are Rolf and Marianne Glittenberg, and while the photo-realistic backdrop depicting life-sized trees and a waterfall as the garden of the villa looks splendid, as do the fancy crystal chandeliers, one gets slowly tired of the coffered wall panels that currently seem to be the fashion and turn up in every other new Claus Guth or Christof Loy production as well. Not new either, but seemingly inspired by a couple of sources, are the costumes (Bacchus is wearing a coat that might just as well be Wotan’s and the Prima Donna gets a dressing gown that looks like Josef Hoffmann’s famous melon design for a coffee set), which means a stylish but safe take on design, with every possible Viennese taste catered for. That said, this can be achieved with a much more daring approach to the piece, as Harry Kupfer’s staging of the opera at the Theater an der Wien proved in 2010.