Like Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos is a celebration of Vienna in all its quirks and quiddities. Set in the house of “the richest man in Vienna”, Richard Strauss’ opera depicts a domestic entertainment, commissioned by the rich man for an after-dinner performance. Having initially settled on the tragic subject of Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, he then decides to spice things up with the farcical comedy of Zerbinetta and her Four Lovers. Everything has to be fitted in before the fireworks begin. The tone of this lovely, joyous production was set by the Haushofmeister or Major Domo, played by Peter Matić to resemble Richard Strauss himself, bald head, lanky torso and all. Just watching Matić sampling the caviar from a huge tin on a wheeled service trolley, then replacing the well-licked spoon in his breast pocket, was alone worth the price of a ticket. Facing him, fresh from his Alberich performance three nights before, Jochen Schmechenbecher as the Music Teacher was the perfect foil: a blustering, boisterous force of creativity, spurring on his young protégé the Composer (sung by the Virginian mezzo, Kate Lindsey, making her much-appreciated debut at the Staatsoper) and left standing by the superior statecraft of the Major Domo.

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Ariadne auf Naxos, like Strauss’s other great opera on creativity, Capriccio, explores the power of art to survive all sorts of worldly interruptions, irrelevances and interferences. It acknowledges that, without the patron, the work will not be performed, and insists that, in spite of the patron’s insistence, there are certain changes that simply cannot be made. The Composer in Ariadne has to put up not only with a massive set of cuts in his already-short tragedy, but also with the equally massive interference of having to accommodate a simultaneous performance of Zerbinetta’s farce. Anyone with a knowledge of the theatre will relish the irony that it is the Dancing Master (played with camp wit and straightforward common sense by Norbert Ernst) who manages to engineer the compromise with the Music Teacher, while it is left to Zerbinetta, the consummate professional, to teach the Composer a lesson in co-operation, by flirting with him until he has no choice but to fall in love with her.

The single set for this production showed the interior of a private theatre in a grand house, with a huge picture-window at the rear looking out onto lush gardens. A bank of seats led up to the window, in readiness for the evening’s performance, while the forestage remained bare in the first half, the 'Prologue' until a set of dressing-tables was brought in for the various characters to get into costume. As is often the case in Ariadne productions, it was the Tenor and the Prima Donna who looked and behaved in a clownish fashion in the first half of the piece, while Zerbinetta and her commedia troupe saved the clowning until the second half.

Emily Magee (Ariadne) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Bacchus) © Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn
Emily Magee (Ariadne) and Klaus Florian Vogt (Bacchus)
© Wiener Staatsoper | Michael Pöhn

Once the Composer had given her beautiful declaration of faith in the art of music, and the Staatsoper audience had retired for their own Sekt and sandwiches, the second act, the ‘Opera’ section of the piece, opened with the stage-within-a-stage set with the wreckage of several broken-down grand pianos, which appeared to have been cast up on Naxos along with Ariadne herself. As the Dancing Master says in the Prologue, “There’s nothing so distasteful as a desert island”. Ariadne, discovered sleeping under one of the wrecked pianos, emerged to the sound of the three nymphs – all beautifully-voiced and acting with grace and elegance – singing of her woes. They are interrupted by the commedia troupe, bursting onto the scene on little scooters (great for scooting up and down the lids of grand pianos), with Harlekin singing “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen” with Lieder-like attention to the meaning of the words. Emily Magee as Ariadne then gave the first evidence of her true vocal capacity with her marvellously phrased and controlled “Es gibt ein Reich”. Its reply, Zerbinetta’s huge coloratura aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, was equally enthralling in an utterly different way. Rarely are two soprano voices placed in greater contrast than here. Wittily continuing the idea of the Composer’s love affair with Zerbinetta, the Composer was shown playing the piano phrases which open her aria on the keyboard of one of the wrecked pianos, while Zerbinetta cavorted about and, at one point, slid down the piano lid, something many have wanted to do.

Bacchus’ voice was the one slight disappointment of the evening: it was a Mime or a Monostatos in timbre rather than a Siegfried. More bel canto would have been welcome, rather than the beginnings of a Bayreuth bark. Klaus Florian Vogt made his debut at the Staatsoper in 2008, and has since sung – apart from Lohengrin – the lighter end of the Heldentenor repertoire, and that is probably where he should stay for the time being, until his voice gains additional weight and strength. Franz Welser-Möst, conducting the small chamber orchestra, showed why he deserves his lofty position as the Staatsoper’s General Music Director.