For an evening of contrasting soprano bliss, it would be hard to top the pairing of Lise Davidsen and Sabine Devieilhe in the opening production of this year’s Aix Festival: Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Since she won both the Queen Sonja and Operalia prizes in 2015, Davidsen’s career has been climbing at a vertiginous angle, and this performance showed exactly why: when Strauss goes Wagnerian in the Primadonna’s incarnation as Ariadne, Davidsen’s voice thrills: when she hits the high point of a phrase, her voice explodes with warmth. I can’t wait to hear Davidsen take on some big Wagnerian roles: the post-show chatter was that here was the next great Nordic Brünnhilde after Nilsson and Stemme, and it was hard to disagree.

The Opera © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
The Opera
© Pascal Victor / Artcompress

Lyric sopranos mature earlier than Wagnerian ones, so while Davidsen can still be labelled “up and coming”, Sabine Devieilhe has already upped and come. Her Zerbinetta was delicious: a voice that was light, agile, playful but still with a creamy timbre in the longer notes. Juxtaposing these two voices was the perfect way to show the collision of musical and dramatic styles that Strauss and Hofmannsthal sought to highlight. Amongst a generally good quality supporting cast, Angela Brower stood out as an earnest and heartfelt Composer, and we were thoroughly entertained by the sung vs spoken dialogue of Josef Wagner’s Music Master and Maik Solbach’s Majordomo. Eric Cutler sang a decent enough Bacchus, but with a voice that was less than fully open and which suffered by the direct comparison with such virtuosic leading ladies.

Rupert Charlesworth (Dancing Master), Sabine Devieilhe (Zerbinetta) and troupe © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
Rupert Charlesworth (Dancing Master), Sabine Devieilhe (Zerbinetta) and troupe
© Pascal Victor / Artcompress

This is the fourth opera I’ve seen directed by Katie Mitchell, and regardless of the widely varying source material – from Mozart opera seria to Strauss ironic comedy to Benjamin gothic drama – the similarities are more pronounced than the differences. All have been characterised by a modern corporate setting, mostly if not entirely monochrome, with a succession of flunkeys providing food and beverage service. That setting is viewed in cross-section, with stage movement generally lateral and the stage depth compressed; we often see the participants in profile. While I have no problem with a director wishing to stamp her individual, well-defined style on a production, I question, in this case, the extent to which Mitchell is really responding to the fundamentals of the opera. The collision between Ariadne’s high art and Zerbinetta’s low art only works if her troupe are genuinely entertaining, masters of their commedia dell’arte genre. In this staging, they were merely coarse (in opposition to the excellent singing quality), with Zerbinetta’s ultra-naff light-up dress and the matching light-up cummerbunds of the men almost embarrassing. The concession to play-within-a-play staging is a rectangular area of sand to represent the space in which Ariadne is marooned – but most of this is occupied by a table at which she is plied with food.

Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) © Pascal Victor / Artcompress
Lise Davidsen (Ariadne)
© Pascal Victor / Artcompress

The production ticks various gender boxes: the Composer is properly feminine, the Dancing Master is trans, and the “richest man in Vienna” appears on stage in a striking full length red ball gown. Mitchell’s big idea is plausible enough, which is that Ariadne has been made pregnant by Theseus before he has dumped her on Naxos. But I struggled to see her direction or its relevance to the libretto, as the baby is born on stage at the point when the three nymphs welcome the arrival of Bacchus. Is Ariadne’s passion for Bacchus some weird Oedipus complex? And what are the contents of the illuminated casket that Bacchus is carrying? The only one large enough to be discernible is a gun, which is artfully removed by Zerbinetta, which is just about consonant with the idea that Ariadne is expecting death, but somewhat clumsily. The purpose of the other layers of the casket remained opaque.

At the end of the night, Strauss’ music was the winner, with Marc Albrecht conducting a very individualistic, chamber opera reading of the score, with all the contrasts and colour I could have wished for, to match the excellence of the singing. But I would have wished for a staging that was considerably more imaginative, individual and responsive to Hofmannsthal’s poetry and wit.