Ariadne auf Naxos

Emily Magee (Ariadne), Elena Mosuc (Zerbinetta), Michelle Breedt (The Composer), Roberto Saccà (Bacchus), Michael Volle (The Music Master), Orchester der Oper Zürich, Cristoph von Dohnányi

The video from the Zurich Opera’s shining feature is Cristoph von Dohnányi’s immaculate, stylish performance. This experienced Straussian finds here the optimal balance between almost radiographic clarity and flowing, expressive phrasing. The house orchestra lovingly responds to its conductor, offering warm yet crystalline sounds throughout. Particularly praiseworthy is the way the conductor handles the difficult transitions from Ariadne music to the commedia dell’arte music in the opera, while encouraging a cantabile approach from his cast and rich expressive playing from his orchestra in the Prologue. Debuting in the role of Ariadne, Emily Magee’s healthy lyric soprano is at its best at the testing highlying forte passages, but lacks variety and fluency in the more introspective moments. What is beyond any doubt is her impressive acting skills. Although Michelle Breedt’s mezzo-soprano is not remarkable in itself, she handles her voice exquisitely, offering a stylish and intelligent performance. Elena Mosuc’s Zerbinetta has many metallic moments, but she has rock-solid technique and imagination. Her truly funny and insightful performance has more than a splash of Joan Collins – the enthusiastic applauses for her big aria are more than deserved. As much as it was for his Ariadne, this was a first time for Roberto Saccà. His tenor is far from ingratiating, but he handles the dangerously high heroic passages with comfort. Claus Guth’s staging is rather puzzling – he did not seem to know what to do with the Prologue (which ends here with the Composer’s suicide – his ensuing ghostly appearances in the opera are really silly). The idea of showing Ariadne as a depressed mature woman alone in a restaurant table increasingly intoxicated with wine and pills makes sense psychologically speaking but collides with the libretto now and then. There are many creative ideas going on here, but the final scene with Bacchus goes woefully astray, especially when the tenor “magically”sets fire on a bowl and then starts to make grape juice with his own hands (how ludicrous does that sound?!). The recorded sound is exemplary.

Deborah Voigt (Ariadne), Natalie Dessay (Zerbinetta), Anne Sofie von Otter (The Composer), Ben Heppner (Bacchus), Albert Dohmen (The Music Master), Staatskappelle Dresden, Giuseppe Sinopoli

Giuseppe Sinopoli’s recording, unlike his performances at La Scala, is very impersonal. The performance has a bureaucratic feeling about it, although the level of clarity is astonishing. The orchestral playing is, of course, excellent and Deutsche Grammophon recorded it in warm acoustics. Deborah Voigt’s voice never sounded Straussian to my ears – it is too grainy and unvariable in colour. And this is the way she sings Ariadne – the first note already tells you how it is going to be the last one. Considering that Natalie Dessay is so creative and innovative about what she sings, I was disappointed that her Zerbinetta is so uninvolved. Of course, her ease in this difficult part is astonishing, but, even so, she does it in such a phlegmatic way that one does not feel really enthusiastic about it. Anne Sofie von Otter was on paper a good idea for the Composer, but, in order to cope with the high tessitura, she adopts a girlish sound that goes against everything this part should be about. Moreover, her voice sounds worn whenever she has to sing forte and the performance has something artifficial about it in the end. Ben Heppner’s case is as unvaried as Voigt, but his voice is really pleasant on the ears.

Margaret Price (Ariadne), Sumi Jo (Zerbinetta), Gösta Winbergh (Bacchus), Orchestre de l’Opéra de Lyon, Kent Nagano

Kent Nagano’s decision of recording the original version should be cherished by every Straussian. He offers all the strategic key numbers missing from the Bourgeois Gentilhomme suite plus the complete original version of the opera. The part which endured more alteration is Zerbinetta and this is quite remarkable, since it was Margarethe Siems and not Selma Kurz to sing it in the first version (and this only proves how fascinating the Dresdner soprano was). Her big aria is even higher than in the final version and has some fiendishly difficult extra coloratura to sing. And Sumi Jo is entirely in control of everything and still has time to sound charming and funny. Jo has only one other recorded performance in a Strauss opera, the Voice of the Falcon, in Solti’s Frau ohne Schatten, and that is quite unfair – I would have liked to see her as Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, for example. However, the most perverse thing about casting here is that, considering that the part of Ariadne has often  been treated to disappointing singing, why did recording companies take so much time to invite Margaret Price to record it? She would have been marvellous in her best days. Here, even past her best, she still pulls out a beautiful performance, but one cannot help imagining how things would have gone in better days. Gösta Winbergh is a pleasant-toned Bacchus. Nagano’s conducting concentrates above all on orchestral colours, while keeping a natural and comfortable pace.

Jessye Norman (Ariadne), Kathleen Battle (Zerbinetta), Tatiana Troyanos (The Composer), James King (Bacchus), Urban Malmberg (Harlekin), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, James Levine

With his own Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Levine’s emotional approach got a bit overcooked when compared to his studio recording (see below). Maybe it is the orchestra’s relative lack of experience with the score compared to the Viennese musicians (who are always able to focus adventurous conductors’ ideas in this repertoire) or the fact that one has to make it big in the Met otherwise the Family Circle will have a pale idea of what is going on – I don’t know. If you need to show someone how close to Puccini Strauss could get, this is your recording. Its trump card is the majestic Ariadne of Jessye Norman. Since Christa Ludwig, no one has made such a grand impression in this role. She uses every note of the score to portray the development from misery to bliss. As a matter of fact, she places so much spirit in it that in the end you could imagine that Ariadne is in other level of existence. Also, she is very funny as the Prima Donna. With the help of image, Kathleen Battle’s Zerbinetta is a bit more convincing, even if she is even less comfortable with what she has to sing than in the studio. Tatiana Troyanos’s Composer, at that time of her career, was not so subtle anymore, but it had acquired an intensity that fits Levine’s purposes. Alas, in James King’s case, it was really too late. He still had the most beautiful of Heldentenor voices, but he seemed desperate to sing what he has to sing. The small roles are nicely taken, but I still wish that Levine could have found a better Harlekin…

Jessye Norman (Ariadne), Edita Gruberová (Zerbinetta), Julia Varady (The Composer), Paul Frey (Bacchus), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Music Master), Olaf Bär (Harlekin), Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester, Kurt Masur

With the help of his prestigious orchestra, Kurt Masur is able to produce exquisite, rich sounds, but some tempi are a bit testing and strings could have clearer articulation. The chamber-music perspective is, fortunately, never out of sight and the members of the Gewandhaus grab the opportunity to make the best of it, although the balance is more favourable to singers. Most of all, Philips offers excellent recorded sound, with exemplary perspective of the sound of the piano. Jessye Norman is again in excellent voice as Ariadne and retains the intensity of her live performances in studio conditions. Edita Gruberová offers her best Zerbinetta here. The voice is less metallic than it used to be and she has developed every expressive point to the optimal level. It is a performance every Straussian should cherish. Julia Varady, finally a soprano in the role of the Composer since Tatiana Troyanos established the mezzo pattern here, causes a flashing impression, with her appealing bright voice with its extra rich low register. Paul Frey is an unremarkable Bacchus who sings his part surprisingly comfortably. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is in grey voice for the Musikmeister, but Olaf Bär is excellent as the Harlekin.

Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Ariadne), Kathleen Battle (Zerbinetta), Agnes Baltsa (The Composer), Gary Lakes (Bacchus), Hermann Prey (The Music Master), Urban Malmberg (Harlekin), Wiener Philharmoniker, James Levine

In James Levine’s studio recording, the Vienna Philharmonic is in splendid form, even if the recorded sound lacks space sometimes. The conductor makes sure that this is a moving experience above all – and he is quite successful in his intent. It is a rather large-scale view of the score – the sort of thing one would expect of late Karajan and I guess that “late Karajan” would be the idea here if the tempi were not – fortunately! – so vivid. I say that because we are also getting a “late Karajan” cast. The problem is that Levine did not take the pain of formatting his prima donna in the straight-jacket -like way Karajan used to do. Anna Tomowa-Sintow simply seems a totally different singer from the one who sang the Marschallin live in Salzburg and in DG’s studio recording. Her voice here is plagued by the sort of metallic vibrancy that makes graciousness and smoothness impossible.  The role of Zerbinetta is quite a stretch for Kathleen Battle, who offers an interesting perspective on the character – and one really compatible with the conductor’s view. Her Zerbinetta is a good girl who is seeing all these guys because she really really wants to find the right one. Exactly for this reason, Battle’s Zerbinetta is almost uniquely satisfying in the lyric passages and her duet with the composer is exquisite. In the more showy moments, however, she seems to be walking on a tightrope. Agnes Baltsa seems to be controversial casting whenever she takes a German role. Even if she has a light accent, she knows exactly what her words mean and uses them purposefully. Her Composer has a very bad temper and she is in her element when he loses it. Whenever the role asks for dreaminess and delicacy, she tries a bit too hard – but it is still a commendable performance. Gary Lakes is a carefree Bacchus. His big bright voice does not find many difficulties in the role, but the performance is rather blank. The cast as a whole is, by the way, glamourous: Hermann Prey’s Musikmeister, Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney and Helga Müller-Mollinari as the nymphs… even Günther von Kannen appears just to sing two phrases, but that makes me ask – why could not they find a more mellifluous Harlekin?

Anna Tomowa-Sintow (Ariadne), Edita Gruberová (Zerbinetta), Trudeliese Schmidt (The Composer), James King (Bacchus), Dale Duesing (Harlekin), Wiener Philharmoniker, Wolfgang Sawallisch

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s live performance from Salzburg is an important document of the talents of a great Straussian. This luxuriant performance has a conductor who knows how to highlight details and to play with tempo without letting it sag. Aided by a clear and warm recording, the German condutor sets a loving eye on the score and, through imaginative phrasing and absolute clarity, produces a touching and musically sophisticated experience. The members of the Vienna Philharmonic take profit of the conductor’s congenial approach to play it like chamber music and offer memorable turn of phrases, especially in the prologue, made slower as to give singers and orchestra all the time they need to produce beautiful and moving moments throughout. Some may point out that this is an approach in which music has pride of place over theatre, but the cast is characterful enough to make it work. As it is a live performance, there are tiny problems here and there – especially with the soloists – but the atmosphere created by the conductor transcends all this. As Ariadne, Anna Tomowa-Sintow offers an uneven performance. Those who are used to her recording with Levine will be positively surprised on finding her voice in firmer and brighter shape and her manners a bit more gracious. However, there is a great deal of carelessness going on here – an extra breath here, the wrong word there etc. She does gather her resources for a moving closing scene, though, and ends on a positive note. Edita Gruberová sings a smooth Zerbinetta here. In the end of the aria, she has a couple of overmetalic notes, but this is overall one of the most exquisite renditions of the part. The booklet quotes a review saying she “inspired the audience with her erotically charged and sensuous display of coloratura fireworks”. I make mine his words. It is also a great opportunity to listen to the sadly neglected Trudeliese Schmidt at the top of her powers, offering a highly emotional Composer, sung in the grand manner. In the excitement of the big moments, a couple of notes may be not perfectly tuned, but that is a minor detail in this beautiful performance. In 1982, the part of Bacchus was beginning to become strenuous for James King and the final duet finds him pinched and straining for top notes. Walter Berry is in his element as the Music Master and Dale Duesing, Kurt Equiluz, Murray Dickie and Siegfried Vogel are wonderfully perky in their arlequinades.

Gundula Janowitz (Ariadne), Edita Gruberová (Zerbinetta), Trudeliese Schmidt (The Composer), René Kollo (Bacchus), Heinz Zednik (The Dance Master), Walter Berry (The Music Master), Barry McDaniel (Harlekin), Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Karl Böhm would be back to a new production of Ariadne in Vienna, which he finally took to film studios. The movie is beautiful and the soundtrack features a most reliable if not particularly original performance from the Austrian conductor. It is not animated as the one with della Casa, elegiac as the one with Ludwig or witty as the one with Hillebrecht – it is just Ariadne, done comme il faut. Gundula Janowitz’s Ariadne is more dramatically engaged here than in Kempe’s studio recording, but her low register is, unfortunately, a bit less functional. Edita Gruberová is the definite Zerbinetta. The role poses her no technical problems and she concentrates exclusively in interpretation. Her Zerbinetta is not entirely alluring – she is more resourceful than seductive and I guess there is nothing sophisticated about her. She is a plain girl with a good way with guys. And it works wonderfully. Trudeliese Schmidt is an ardent composer, outstandingly idiomatic. René Kollo has a plausible voice for Bacchus, but he may sound nervous with the top notes he has to sing. The secondary roles are taken by the likes of Walter Berry and Heinz Zednik.

Leontyne Price (Ariadne), Edita Gruberová (Zerbinetta), Tatiana Troyanos (The Composer), René Kollo (Bacchus), Walter Berry (The Music Master), Barry McDaniel (Harlekin), London Philharmonic, Georg Solti

Although the orchestra in Georg Solti’s recording is the London Philharmonic, you will not really miss the Vienna Philharmonic here. The Londoners produce nice chamber-like sonorities and it is endearing to find Geoffrey Parsons as the pianist in the orchestra. The recorded sound is excellent and Solti’s conducting is remarkably effective and spontaneous. It does lack the ultimate level of imagination of Böhm’s performances – but that is something one could say of almost every other item in the discography. Leontyne Price could have been a nice Ariadne. She adapts her Verdian manners splendidly and cunningly makes her voice sound like the one of a “German” soprano most of the time. More than that – her feeling for her lines is genuine and her mezza voce is admirable. However, it was too late for her. Her voice is sometimes a slightly undersupported and there is under-the-note attack in dangerous levels. Although Edita Gruberová is in creamier voice here than she would be in Böhm’s video, she is less dramatically engaged. Of course, this is comparing her with herself – she is still a exemplary Zerbinetta. Tatiana Troyanos knows everything about her role and is more moving than almost all her rivals, but I miss the mezza voce in Böhm’s studio recording. For a mysterious reason, Bacchus is a role that does not work entirely for René Kollo. Maybe if he relaxed more and did not try to sound like a dramatic tenor, the results would have been more convincing. In any case, this is his best recording in this opera.

Hildegard Hillebrecht (Ariadne), Reri Grist (Zerbinetta), Tatiana Troyanos (The Composer), Jess Thomas (Bachus), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (The Music Master), Barry McDaniel (Harlekin), Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Karl Böhm

It is a pity that Christa Ludwig had declined the role of Ariadne before she could appear in Böhm’s studio recording. The alternative soloist in the Salzburg performances, Hildegard Hillebrecht stood in and offers the hallmark shallow tone and poor intonation. Some may be turned off by that and discard this performance, but that would be a shame. This is Böhm’s best Ariadne. It has a structural understanding and an accurate dealing with the comedy and tragic (or pseudo-tragic) elements of the plot lacking in almost every other performance, even by himself. Alas, Jess Thomas and Reri Grist did not repeat what they had done in Salzburg (see below for BÖHM 1964). He is a bit short of top notes and she is a bit inaccurate and rather nasal. On the other hand, Tatiana Troyanos offers her most splendid Composer, providing some high mezza voce effects once in a while. Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is an excellent Music Master and the secondary roles are beautifully cast with the likes of Arleen Augér and John van Kesteren. The Bayerische Rundfunk orchestra produces beautiful sounds and, even if some accuse some ensembles to lack the last degree of polish, everything here works wonderfully for the right effect. The recorded sound could not be more appropriate.

Gundula Janowitz (Ariadne), Sylvia Geszty (Zerbinetta), Teresa Zylis-Gara (The Composer), James King (Bacchus), Peter Schreier (The Dance Master), Theo Adam (The Music Master), Hermann Prey (Harlekin), Staatskapelle Dresden, Rudolf Kempe

Rudolf Kempe’s performance is a thoroughly satisfying musical experience. There is such care in the phrasing of each instrument in the Dresdner orchestra (recorded in dry and analytic sound) that it almost seems that you are listening to a new work in some passages. In spite of the occasional constricted note, Gundula Janowitz is in heavenly voice and James King is admirably heroic – they sing wonderfully together. Teresa Zylis-Gara is in pretty voice for the Composer, even if she is quite anonimous as a performer. Sylvia Geszty’s soprano is far from beautiful and her phrasing could be more subtle, but at least she tries to be charming. The secondary roles are cast with people such as Peter Schreier, Theo Adam and Hermann Prey.

Christa Ludwig (Ariadne), Reri Grist (Zerbinetta), Sena Jurinac (The Composer), Jess Thomas (Bacchus), John van Kesteren (The Dance Master), Barry McDaniel (Harlekin), Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Live from Salzburg in 1964, Karl Böhm was here in elegiac mood; some scenes feature heavenly sounds if somewhat slow pace, such as the ones involving the nymphs (including the young Lucia Popp). The recorded sound is a bit boxy, but clear enough. Christa Ludwig is a stately Ariadne. For a mezzo, she has easy top notes, but you will not find perfect legato in the upper end of the tessitura. But that is a minor drawback in an emotionally generous performance, which seems to have inspired. Jess Thomas to give his very best as Bacchus. To make things better, he is in wonderful voice. Their closing duet is a collector item. Sena Jurinac finally offers the engaged performance as the Composer one should expect from her, but it is Reri Grist’s evening. It is arguably her best recorded performance.

Leonie Rysanek (Ariadne), Roberta Peters (Zerbinetta), Sena Jurinac (The Composer), Jan Peerce (Bacchus), Walter Berry (The Music Master/Harlekin), Wiener Philharmoniker, Erich Leinsdorf

In Erich Leinsdorf’s recording,  the Vienna Philharmonic proves to be entirely at home in this music and the performance develops in the most natural and spontaneous way. It is not the ultimate performance of Ariadne, but it is a very good one. Even if Leinsdorf is a bit square in some less melodic moments, there is still clarity aplenty, aided by Decca’s spacious recording. The ensembles are not the most polished one could find, but this is apt in the fast pace of the arlequinades, sung with real sense of humour by the Vienna State Opera soloists, especially by the congenial Walter Berry. Leonie Rysanek is a passionate Ariadne and her beautiful pianissimi are an indisputable asset. Her descents to the bottom of her range are often oversmoky, but it is still one of her best behaved performances on disc. Sena Jurinac’s beautifully sung Composer ought to be more interesting, but Roberta Peters’ Zerbinetta is a winning performance despite of the occasional shrillness. She is in easy voice and builts a flirtatious and coquettish character – more in the Marilyn Monroe style. It seems as if Jan Peerce was tracked in previously recorded material, since the perspective of his voice is different from the rest of the cast. I do not know if this is actually the case- maybe he only needed special microphonic care. His Bacchus is far from handsome-voiced but he is generally reliable.

Lisa della Casa (Ariadne), Hilde Güden (Zerbinetta), Irmgard Seefried (The Composer), Rudolf Schock (Bacchus), Wiener Philharmoniker, Karl Böhm

Böhm’s Ariadne from Salzburg with Lisa della Casa is an interesting if flawed performance. The conductor was in urgent mood, but the orchestra was not in its best shape, mistakes surfacing now and then. Della Casa is an unsubtle Ariadne who takes her pretty voice to its limits sometimes. Hilde Güden is extremely vivacious as Zerbinetta and richer of voice than most her rivals. Her performance is very naughty and her Zerbinetta has more than a touch of Mae West in her. Her artistry makes for some technical limitations and she does not seem scared of what she has to sing. Irmgard Seefried is in unreliable voice as the Composer. There is some insistent use of “acting with the voice” here, but it is still a compelling, vivid interpretation. Rudolf Schock is not as subtle live as he was in studio (see below for KARAJAN, 1954). Still, he is a most ardent and handsomely sung Bacchus. The recorded sound is a bit aggressive and there are some of the drawbacks of live performances – noises and variable sound image.

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (Ariadne), Rita Streich (Zerbinetta), Irmgard Seefried (The Composer), Rudolf Schock (Bacchus), Hermann Prey (Harlekin), Philharmonia Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan

Herbert von Karajan’s recording favours slow tempi without providing much sense of consequence in his phrasing to avoid the impression of pointlessness. In the prologue, Karl Dönch’s Music Master is not able to create a flowing line and often croons for the microphone. Irmgard Seefried has not lost her immediate identification with the role, but ten years have robbed the most of the freshness in her voice (see below for Böhm 1944). Rita Streich is a most charming Zerbinetta, albeit one  entirely concentrated on singing the notes. Although she never sang the title role on stage, Ariadne is Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s best recorded performance of an opera by Richard Strauss. She sings beautifully throughout and adds her own kind of intense textual expression to the role. Rudolf Schock is simply the best Bacchus in the discography – and he also understands the underlying comic aspects of his role. The minor parts are taken by singers such as Hugues Cuénod and Hermann Prey.

Maria Reining (Ariadne), Alda Noni (Zerbinetta), Irmgard Seefried (The Composer), Max Lorenz (Bacchus), Orchester der Wiener Staatsoper, Karl Böhm

Ariadne auf Naxos entered the repertoire due to the advocacy of Karl Böhm. He admired this work’s orchestration and was fascinated for the contrasted colors Strauss could create with a group of less than 40 musicians. As Böhm was Strauss’s favourite conductor, he was the one chosen to perform this very work in the composer’s 80th year birthday. The performance was recorded and every Straussian cherishes the fact that the creator of the piece was there and applauded in the end. I guess reviews are unnecessary here…  Böhm offers an animated performance with the Viennese musicians and the recorded sound is quite good for the time. It lacks atmosphere, but it has astonishing clarity. Irmgard Seefried, in her early twenties, is the most remarkable soloist, singing a truly exciting Composer. Alda Noni is an accurate Zerbinetta, even if the voice is not very beautiful. Unfortunately, Max Lorenz is too free about phrasing and sings his “own” version of the score. On the other hand, Maria Reining, a favourite from Strauss, is enchanting as Ariadne. Her voice is creamy and velvety and her phrasing is extremely gracious. She lacks technical security, though, and inserts some extra breath pauses, as Ein Schönes war.