This is the fourth outing for Christof Loy’s production of Strauss’ minimum-opus since it was first seen in the house in 2002, then as now conducted by Antonio Pappano in his capacity as Music Director. It’s evidently popular – it has had twice the amount of exposure of either of its predecessor stagings: John Copley’s black-and-white drabfest in the 1970s (the ROH’s first-ever), and the riotous golden Klimt-ian one by Jean-Louis Martinoty in the 1980s – though for the life of me, I’ve no idea why, since it has always struck me as turgid, dull, badly blocked, comedically ineffective and miserably designed, and with absolutely no Verwandlung (transformation) at the end. On the topic of which I can do no better than to quote Hofmannsthal the librettist’s own words to Strauss, ill-advisedly included in the programme: “If we are ever to stage this, we must use all the powers of the painter and director…. The small stage must appear limitless, and with Bacchus’s entry the doll-like backcloths must be gone, the ceiling of Jourdain’s room flies up, Bacchus and Ariadne must be surrounded by night with stars, there can be no sign of the “play within a play” … everything must disappear and be forgotten”. And what do we get instead? The same old box set room, with absolutely no theatrical or performance-space visual reference, right until the bitter end, at which point far from forming part of some thrilling scenic transformation, the hero and heroine simply walk offstage (in slow-motion, but of course). And this hair-shirt scenic dreariness (courtesy of Herbert Murauer) is referred to generally at the ROH as a “spectacular” production. Go figure…

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The only thing in this staging that might, just, qualify for the term is the opening, in which the reception hall of the “richest man in Vienna” rises up to reveal the basement underneath. But that is over within the first minute, and consists of the sort of “spectacle” which has been going on at the Met ever since 1966 – “Oooh, look, Morton, stage lifts!!” – and which might by now be considered passé even in Bow Street. Moreover, though the programme makes much of the “upstairs/downstairs” contrast thereby afforded, the fact is that the basement – far from shabby and chock-a-block with theatrical detritus – is so antiseptically neon-lit, linear and spotless as to keep even a half-crazed fetishist like Le Corbusier perfectly happy. And it is within this yawning expanse that the “comedy” is meant to unfold. As it happens, Loy has no more of an eye for a comic touch than he does for effective stage groupings, most of which take the form of everybody standing around awkwardly gawping at whoever happens to be singing, with acres of floodlit dead space for the drama to bleed to death in wherever you look. As for bustle, chaos, clutter or merely the simple aggregation of pre-performance activity, Loy shows not an ounce of understanding, and I’ve never seen the Prologue fall flatter than this as a result (except in Glyndebourne’s garbage show from last year, which sort of had the nugatory excuse that it wasn’t even bothering to stage Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s opera as written in the first place).

So, not for the first time in this house, it’s all down to the singers and conductor to save what they can from the wreckage. Concurrently, they are managing miraculously well in the egregiously squalid new Manon Lescaut, soon to be gracing the boards of the somehow-appropriate Shanghai, never to return (with any luck). Here, where the effort needed is rather less and the general stage-obstruction not so blatant, they’re not so lucky, alas. And much to my surprise, the trouble, as always, starts at the top. That the man who conducts the Puccini so stupendously should simultaneously be the man who presides over this sleepy and stodgy account of the Strauss almost defies belief: but Pappano cossets the score far too much, especially in the opera proper, where the prelude isn’t so much musing as moribund, and the final duet absolutely interminable, taken at a death’s crawl that kills the music or any accumulation of drama stone dead. I heard Sawallisch conduct this score: then Karl Böhm; Simon Rattle blazed incandescently in it; and latterly it became the one Strauss opera Colin Davis deigned to direct, dazzlingly. All of them brought more life and Straussian Schwung to the score than Pappano, who spends far too much time ostentatiously moulding, at the expense of forward momentum. And though he and his game mini-band of 30-odd – who played well enough – received a rousing ovation at the end, I didn’t think it was much merited.

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The other big surprise and disappointment of the evening was the similarly-lauded Zerbinetta of Jane Archibald, here making her much-anticipated house debut in the role she seems to be making her own all over the world. On this showing, I can’t see why. She has no stage personality to speak of that I could detect, absolutely no charisma or star-power as a theatrical animal, and her singing was, at best, thinly correct. Of flamboyance, or sheer vocal thrill, there was not a trace, with poorly-defined little semi-trills, a pair of high Es verging on inaudibility, the long high D on “hingegeben” stretched thin indeed, and about as much voltage as a half-dead torch battery. I’m not even going to go on about Reri Grist, or Kathleen Battle, much less the staggering Edita Gruberovà – all of whom I saw sing the role live – in order to find her wanting. You have only to turn your mind back to this show’s second outing in 2004, and Diana Damrau’s sensational performances then, to realise what’s missing here. And it may just be my recollection at fault, but I don’t recall the character being directed to play the calculating “flirtation” with the Composer in the Prologue for real before, or the bizarre emotional collapse she undergoes at the very end, observing the duet for Bacchus and Ariadne not with – as specified by the authors – lynx-eyed amusement, but instead slumped in a sobbing heap, having to be helped offstage so overwhelmed is she by apparently genuine emotion. Er? Zerbinetta? This is nonsense, the sort of contrary drivel Herr Loy has brought into this house far too often, and I long for the day when the shades of Strauss and Hofmannsthal (not to mention Wagner, Donizetti, Mozart and Berg, whose works he’s similarly treated here) rise up and throw him in the nearest river.

Roberto Saccà has a fair stab at Bacchus, though as he started his offstage cries of “Circe, kannst du mich hören?”, I found myself thinking a) “unfortunately, yes”, and b) “what kind of a Casting Dept. has Jonas Kaufmann on hand in the house, but singing Puccini instead of this?”. Saccà, unwontedly (and unwantedly) wobbly to begin with, finally struck form with “Bin ich ein Gott, schuf mich ein Gott” which had authentic heldentenor spin and ring about it, and which happily continued through to the end. I can’t say that Ruxandra Donose overly impressed me as the Komponist, too much of the role sounding far too low for her, which is odd given that she is actually a mezzo, who ought to be having trouble with the top of what is after all designated as a soprano role: instead of which the top gleamed (relatively) effortlessly, whilst the mid-range, where most of it lies, got repeatedly lost. Again, I hardly have to start thinking as far back as Tatiana Troyanos and Yvonne Minton in the role in order to find this new assumption inadequate: this staging’s first two outings brought us Sophie Koch and the incomparable Susan Graham, all of them operating at a level way above what was heard tonight.

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In her first-ever Ariadne, Karita Mattila made a welcome return to the house after last year’s blazing Maries (in Wozzeck, in case you hadn’t noticed and were thinking of La fille du régiment instead). It would be idle to pretend that, now in her 50s, the voice remains in pristine condition: there are lumps and bumps, and definite grinding of gears, and an attenuated breath-line (which alas resulted in the long held middle B-flat on “Ein Schönes war” having to be broken for a quick gasp just to get to the end of the phrase). Nor was there much unfettered soaring to be heard in “du wirst mich befreien” towards the end of “Es gibt ein Reich”, a phrase that literally takes wing as one of the great glories of Strauss’ soprano writing, but here emerging as underpowered and under some strain. Elsewhere, there was the odd screech and the occasional approximation. Smooth vocalism this was not. But do you know what? Some of the finest Ariadnes I ever saw had their problems with the role, not least among them Gundula Janowitz and Anne Schwanewilms, both of whom had absolutely toe-curling catastrophes with the high B-flat on “Hermes heissen sie ihn”, which not only did Mattila manage to nail to the wall, but held for a good half-an-hour into the bargain. And at the opposite end of the vocal range, the low A-flats on “Totenreich” – delivered flat on her back – were simply amazing. Above all, and almost irrespective of success or failure in this or that aspect of the singing, Mattila simply GIVES. Indeed, I can’t readily remember any singer who ever, in my experience, gave more, and so unstintingly, both of her voice and her entire being. To say she throws herself into a role is the understatement of the century: they almost take her over, to the point where she can appear to be hanging on for dear life, wherever the theatrical muse might be taking her. If it isn’t necessarily polished, it is undeniably thrilling, and quite oddly moving to witness, so the fact that she was outrageously OTT in the Prologue doesn’t really matter. Strauss would have adored her unconditionally. God knows I do.

Even so, there was a soprano star-turn that cast everything and everybody else in the shade tonight: Sofia Fomina, whom I first heard eighteen months ago subbing for Patrizia Ciofi as Isabelle in the sorry saga that was Robert le diable. She was impressive enough then in a (pointlessly, fiendishly) difficult role. Tonight, she was magnificent as Naiad, and together with the exceptionally luxurious casting of Karen Cargill, no less, as Dryad, and an excellent Echo from Kiandra Howarth, the three women made easily the finest trio of nymphs I have ever heard in this work, something I don’t say lightly. It’s worth turning out just to hear the three of them and Mattila in their long interactions in the opera proper: whenever they were singing, we were on a wholly different level of achievement to all the rest, and that alas includes the men of Zerbinetta’s troupe, alternately blustery and thin-toned (and astonishingly unfunny, though that’s not their fault).

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In the Prologue, there were decent cameos from Ed Lyon as the Dancing Master (to whom, notwithstanding his canary-yellow costume, camp clearly does not come easily); and a sterling vocal effort from Thomas Allen, in much better voice than he was for Dialogues des Carmélites, lending real distinction to the role of the Music Master. I can’t pretend to like Christoph Quest back yet again as the Haushofmeister – which role the ROH’s Press Dept. release imagines is sung, much to my amusement – who is far too louche and thuggishly parvenu for a role that should drip hauteur and icy disdain (I once saw Donald Sinden do it, albeit in English, and the man practically had an orgasm merely at the thought of the “Fireworks promptly at Nine”). But Ashley Riches makes his mark – yet another – in the tiny role of the Wig Maker, as does Jihoon Kim, unrecognisable as the bolshy Lackei. It’s just a pity the staging can’t find a way of integrating all this effort into something theatrically memorable, or indeed anything other than a kind of stilted and strained unatmospheric awkwardness.

Stephen Jay-Taylor

3 stars

(Photos : Catherine Ashmore)

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