R Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (in English)

Our rating 
5.0 out of 5 star rating 5.0

COMPOSERS: R Strauss
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Ariadne auf Naxos (in English)
PERFORMER: Christine Brewer, Robert Dean Smith, Anita Watson, Pamela Helen Stephen, Gail Pearson, Alice Coote, Alan Opie, John Graham-Hall, Paul Keohone, Dean Robinson, Declan McCusker, Gillian Keith, Roderick Williams, Stephen Fry; Scottish CO/Richard Armstrong
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 3168(2)

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This was to have been Sir Charles Mackerras’s project. But in the last year of his life, knowing something had to give, he pulled out, so buying time to leave us with precious memories of his Cunning Little Vixen at Covent Garden instead.

He left a magnificent cast and orchestra, though, in the hands of another knight, the vintage Strauss/Wagner conductor Richard Armstrong. The results are more delicious than I could have hoped for my Desert Island opera.

Its virtues include a line-up of singers without a weak link – almost as difficult in this connoisseur’s hybrid as it is in Wagner. (The luxury casting includes Stephen Fry in the spoken role of the Major-Domo.) Christine Brewer’s lustrous Ariadne had to be captured on disc, even if recording never quite does justice to the way her voice luminously fills a hall.

There’s another essential performance from Alice Coote, an impetuous composer in the opera’s backstage Prologue with unflinchingly full top notes that few other genuine mezzos possess.

Gillian Keith as the fickle Zerbinetta, human contrast to the heroic one-man-woman Ariadne, may be a bit fluttery and one-tone compared to the legendary Gruberova (heard on Sawallisch’s live recording on Orfeo), but Keith’s coloratura is excellent and she makes intelligent phrasing out of the text, superbly translated by Christopher Cowell.

From the colloquial (‘she’s having her hair done’) to the naïve charm of the harlequinade (‘your tears will dry at the touch of a sunbeam’) and the metaphysics of the final Ariadne-Bacchus duet, it’s a winner, even if you can’t hear the words in many of the upper-reach passages.

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I’ve never heard a more responsive trio of nymphs or a better male quartet. And how they mesh with orchestral solos from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The chamber forces once or twice struggle to fill the acoustics at full pelt, but the sparkle never falters. It’s right up there with my favourite Ariadnes, from Levine and Kempe. David Nice