Ariadne auf Naxos at the Theater an der Wien: Art isn’t easy

The bar has been raised for the richest man in Vienna: one must now have a space shuttle.  The rich (though not unseen) patron of Harry Kupfer’s new Theater an der Wien production of Ariadne auf Naxos holds his party in his private hangar.  He is not a man of taste or of restraint, and none of his guests have much interest in anything Ariadne is selling.  And Kupfer doesn’t seem to have a lot of faith in the transcendent power of art in modern times, either. This production had cool visuals, an amazingly sung Bacchus from Johan Botha, and an excellently staged Prologue, but for me it never really took off.  Maybe I’m just not cynical enough.

Strauss-Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos.  Theater an der Wien, 14/10/10.  New production by Harry Kupfer, sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Yan Tax lights by Hans Toelstede.  ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien conducted by Bertrand de Billy with Anne Schwanewilms (Ariadne), Mari Eriksmoen (Zerbinetta), Heidi Brunner (Komponist), Johan Botha (Bacchus), Nikolay Borchev (Harlekin), Jochen Schmeckenbecher (Musiklehrer)

This production sure is colorful.  Literally.  The female party guests get bright red and the commedia dell’arte characters look like they’ve been assaulted by someone wielding a confetti gun.  And the Glitter Fairy threw up on them, too.  The set isn’t large but its industrial look isn’t quite minimal or monochromatic either, and sometimes we have video projections too.  It looks awesome, but it’s very, very busy.  The tasteless desert island set is a small roped-off square in the middle of the hangar space, filled with broken-off statue bits of wings, I assume representing Ariadne’s condition but also the opera seria’s antiquated, museum-like place in a world of space shuttles and clutter.

The Prologue is really excellent.  It’s bustling without being too crowded or unfocused, it moves quickly all over the stage and establishes all the characters very quickly, including a Tenor with an affection for Zerbinetta.  Everything is modern, more or less, though the party guests do sport tall Baroque wigs.  The Composer’s black and white suit stands out among all the color, in the opera Ariadne and Bacchus will also wear black and white.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what this symbolizes.

The Opera features a lot of milling-about by the supernumerary party guests, who are considerably more interested in Zerbinetta than Ariadne.  Occasionally TVs showing stock reports appear.  Ariadne languishes on her broken wings almost unnoticed, her isolation becoming the abandoned state of high art in modern culture.  Bacchus, wearing a tux and waving a hanky, is the commodified form of culture for the masses, giving us effortless tenorial thrills and similarly uninterested in Ariadne–he ends up with Zerbinetta.  Ariadne, confusingly, ends up with Harlekin, joining the modern world at last.  I guess?

You can’t deny that Kupfer has a point of view, but I’m too much of an idealist, and I like Strauss’s music too much, to go along with it.  In this production, high culture doesn’t seem to be something worth saving.  While I can understand putting Ariadne in the background as an interpretive decision, it and the confusing finale undermine too much of the music without making a good point in return.  The party guests don’t give Ariadne a chance, but Kupfer doesn’t give her one either.  It’s easy to show superficial rich people ignoring culture, but what’s the point?  The guests appreciate Zerbinetta and company, of course, but the troupe’s antics are too sweet and harmless to have any kind of satiric bite in this context.

Musically, this was yet another production to show that the Theater an der Wien can for the most part stand up to the Staatsoper in quality–often by hiring many of the same people.  The ORF orchestra conducted by Bertrand de Billy got off to an uneven start but filled the theater in the Opera without ever being too loud (this theater is perfect for this opera in size, I believe Strauss actually pointed this out himself at one point).  Ensembles were excellent.  Anne Schwanewilms brought understated simplicity and sensitive lyric singing to Ariadne, but she, perhaps due to this production, lacked presence and her tone often turned harsh and metallic (though her volume was fine). 

Mari Eriksmoen was plucked out of obscurity to replace post-partum Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta.  She gave a competent account of the role with confidence, stamina, good diction, and good intonation, but the voice itself is small and colorless, and she didn’t even try the trill on the high D.  She does have great stage presence, though, and her modern, no-nonsense Zerbinetta never lapsed into cutesy.  I suspect the enormous applause at the end had something to do with the general Viennese fondness for women who are young and skinny, though.

Johan Botha was unquestionably the musical highlight of the evening with an effortlessly sung Bacchus with his usual clear, light but incredibly powerful tone.  He sounds like he could sing this in his sleep, and I can’t imagine anyone sounding better  in this role today.  He was a good sport embodying the multitude of tenor clichés handed to him by Kupfer–yes, including that hanky–but still, the guy can’t really act.  Interesting work-around, I suppose.

Heidi Brunner had a few excellent moments as the Komponist, singing some lovely rich high notes, but also some rough patches between registers and sloppy phrasing.  Jochem Schmeckenbecher was again (I saw him at the Met in February) a good if blustery Musiklehrer and Nikolay Borchev made a positive if fleeting impression as Harlekin.  The Nymphs et al. were all perfectly adequate.

I do like Zerbinetta’s yellow and green striped tights, though.  If you tell me where I can get some of those I would wear the heck out of them in all sorts of inappropriate contexts.  Proof that I really did choose the right blog name here, I guess.

I think I’m alone in not liking this one too much.  If you would like to read a more ecstatic review you can start with the two major Viennese newspapers, Der Standard and Die Presse.  There are three more performances, on October 17, 20, and 22.  It is not sold out and the standing room line was remarkably low key.

Photos copyright Werner Kmetitsch/Theater an der Wien
Next: Mass in B minor at the Musikverein with Harnoncourt tonight.

You may also like


  1. I didn't think Zerbinetta would miss Ariadne. Excellent review. The papers (also the Zeitung) were rather enthusiastic but certainly didn't convey the Zwischentone of the production nearly as well.

    I'm actually listening to the ORF broadcast as I type this and I think you've taken the measure of the principals quite well (haven't heard Botha yet but he is the best known and vocally most reliable quantity). On balance I kinda like Brunner but would add somewhat unsteady and perhaps even a bit threadbarish to your description of Schwanewilms. Not having seen the show and based on you review I can see how she would have a hard time asserting herself but generally I'm not sure about her charisma.

    Based on you reference I gather you saw the Met last season and for my money THE Ariadne of the season in Vienna (and a big operatic event, period) should be the Stemme run in March, quite irrespective of the remaining cast, conductor, playing or production. Absurdly luxurious voice and generally stupendous presentation at the Met.

    Also, the The Theatre is indeed excellent. Perfectly sized for Mozart as well. Possibly the best Figaro I've seen (and I've seen lots – though for me never too many) was there and although the conducting (Muti) and cast was at the highest possible level, the scale of the theater and the acoustics were helpful as well.

  2. Danke schön, Marcillac.

    Brunner sounded like the right voice to me, it just wasn't coming out quite right. Maybe she was just having an off night.

    Yes, I saw the Met production last year and am converted to the cult of Stemme. I'll definitely go see her at the Staatsoper, though I kind of wish I could see her sing a different role as well–I got a ticket for her Rusalka in Munich but she has canceled that.

    I saw the wonderful Chéreau Cosi at the Theater an der Wien a few years ago, and am going to their Finta giardiniera in a month, they are still keeping the Mozart alive. I also saw an 1805-version Fidelio ("Leonore," that is) there in 2005, which was quite a special experience, it being the theater of the premiere.