, June 2009
The conflict between High Art and Popular Culture (should that one be capitalized?) is something that’s not new or in fact even endemic to highbrow pursuits like opera and music in general. Witness, for example, the Bravo Channel. When I first got cable, back in the Dark Ages (meaning the late 1980s), Bravo was the “go to” station for art films and, lo and behold, performances of opera and classical music. Now, of course, we have Kathy Griffin’s exploits on the D-list (not that I’m complaining, mind you). It’s something that any artist who hopes to make their living with their art obviously struggles with literally on a day to day basis—should they resign themselves to penury and pursue only their highest aspirations, or should they give in to the call of the vox populi, and do something that will guarantee them a hefty regular royalty check? That very struggle is at the heart of Richard Strauss’ charming Ariadne auf Naxos, a wryly self-referential tome about Strauss’ own High Art aspirations ironically set to some of his most accessible and “popular” music.
Strauss himself was at the intersection of these two strains, not only during his lifetime, but many years after his death. I think he would have been amazed to have heard his iconic Also Sprach Zarathustra opening theme morphed, not only for 2001: A Space Odyssey, but, perhaps more relevantly to this discussion, by Brasilian superstar keyboard player Deodato, who made the “tune” (to use a not so subtle jab by Strauss’ Ariadne librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl) a Top 40 sensation. But even during Strauss’ lifetime, he was an unusually “popular” classical composer, one whose penchant for soaring melody was balanced by an overwhelming orchestral technique that can leave the head (and ears) spinning (as any music student who has attempted to follow along on one of his scores as the music plays will attest).
While a lot of German late Romantic composers are summarily dismissed, rightly or wrongly, as being largely humorless (Wagner or Bruckner, anyone?), Strauss’ music is full of spritely wit in such works as the ebullient Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, and even in less expected tone poems like Ein Heldenleben. You can almost hear the bubbling laughter of clarinets and flutes in many Strauss passages, punctuated by the loud guffaws of the horns, and the snorts of the bassoons. For a composer as emotionally overwrought as Richard Strauss, his music is simply a heck of a lot of fun to listen to.
All of those strands come wonderfully into play in Ariadne auf Naxos, which comically (if acerbically) “combines” a newly composed opera seria (called “Ariadne”) with a Commedia dell’Arte performance, as both troupes were hired by the unnamed “patron” who, since he is paying for the proceedings, wants to save time and see them both simultaneously (and that in and of itself is another not so subtle jab at the vagaries of the modern audience). This sets up a delicious dialectic between the two opposing teams, as it were, as the composer of the opera decries the debasement of her (yes, her) piece of Art, while the buffo comedians wonder if the audience will still be awake by the time they take the stage.
This is a brilliantly staged and sung version of Ariadne, which manages to modernize at least the setting (the opera within an opera takes place in a sort of elegant restaurant, rather than a deserted island, somewhat slighting its purported neo-classical leanings), while staying true to Strauss and von Hofmannstahl’s original conception. The prologue and set up are played before a luxurious diaphanous curtain which assumes several different colors. The singing here is unbelievably rich and multicolored, from Michelle Breedt’s commanding Composer to Emily Magee’s luscious Ariadne to Roberto Sacca’s soaring Tenor/Bacchus. The redoubtable Christoph von Dohnanyi confidently leads the Zurich Opera House’s resplendent orchestra through its paces, and Strauss’ brilliant orchestrations are put on full display by these admirable players.
Though the libretto does get a bit repetitive, especially in the set up (we get it—Art vs. Commerce, OK?), von Hofmannstahl does have some passingly hilarious jibes along the way, especially for anyone who has ever worked in the theater in any capacity. Bacchus comes out screaming at one point to his costume designer that his floral headpiece is a monstrosity. Been there, done that—sort of, anyway. All of this pointed commentary, whether aimed at actors, composers, or even the audience itself, is handled with a complete lack of malice, however, making it fun and funny, while also revealing some stark truths about what goes through a creator’s mind as he attempts to craft something that fulfills his (her in this case) deepest desires while also reaching out and speaking to others. It’s not an easy tightrope to walk, as Ariadne makes quite clear.
This is the first opera BD I’ve reviewed released under the TDK brand, and it is a sparklingly clear and crisp one, with an AVC codec and enhanced 1.78:1 OAR. Detail is astounding at times, especially in the many closeups (you can count pores if you’re so inclined). Colors are beautiful, especially in the opening scenes when the backlit scrim assumes many different shades over the course of just a few minutes.
Similarly, both the PCM Stereo and DTS HD-MA 7.1 mixes are superb. While the stereo will certainly suffice for those of you without a home theater setup, the 7.1 is amazingly robust, with excellent separation and balance between the aggressive Strauss orchestral forces and the singers. A beautiful live hall ambience pervades this mix and makes you feel like you’re in the front row, centre, enjoying this performance right there in Zurich. The opera is sung in its original German, with subtitles available in English, German, French, Italian and Spanish.
Unlike its ArtHaus and OpusArte counterparts, this TDK release offers only an essay in the accompanying insert booklet.
Ariadne auf Naxos is a charming, and quite accessible, piece that nonetheless explores several interesting facets of the creative process. Strauss, himself able to walk that fine line between Art and Commerce, here crafts one of his loveliest and most athletic scores, and it is given a fine reading here by both the orchestra and singers. Highly recommended.