Ariadne auf Naxos - Haus für Mozart, 29 July 2012 (Salzburg Festival)
Most of us know Ariadne auf Naxos only as the familiar prologue-plus-opera. But this was put together only after the failure of an earlier version in which Molière's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme replaced the prologue. Or not quite. Conveniently for Strauss and Hofmannsthal's purposes, the original play was performed to musical accompaniment, incorporates ballets, and cues a musical entertainment at the end.
However Hofmannsthal saw fit to adapt it further. He added a final scene (later expanded to become the prologue) to explain the opera's content, cut dialogues and reassigned lines.
Bechtolf attempts to explore the playwright's real-life frustrated relationship with the beautiful young widow Countess Ottonie von Degenfeld (the inspiration for the character of Ariadne) by adding them to the play as the central characters. In Bechtolf's version, Le bourgeois gentilhomme is not the play itself, but a play-within-a-play, a text the character Hofmannsthal is developing into, you've guessed it, a prologue for an opera. The result is so radically different from the original in both intent and effect it should really be called a third version.
But is it any good? The parts that work best are those in which Molière's original text has been least molested. The idiot parvenu M. Jourdain, whose riches finance the opera, gets all the best lines. Cornelius Obonya makes the most of them, in hilarious contrast to the dull, wordy interventions of Hofmannsthal and Ottonie. The absurdly effective ballet-dancing tailors and waiters are another touch of genius for which Molière is entirely to thank.
On to the opera. Bechtolf has set it as part of the play, whose characters sit on red plush bleachers at the back while the opera unfolds in front of them. As the limited remaining space has been littered with two squashed grand pianos, the singers have to jostle for elbow room. I didn't discern any 'interpretation' beyond a lot of jolly and apposite costuming, though I have to point out that for some reason Jonas Kaufmann not only dressed like a cat but moved like one too, finally coming to nestle in Ariadne's lap for a quick stroke. Very strange.
His long rest has clearly done Herr Katzenhose good - his Bacchus was heroically sung. Emily Magee's Ariadne was less convincing. Her fabulously rich and dominating tone was marred by a bumpy line and intonation issues - perhaps she was a little under the weather. The vocal honours went to Elena Mosuc's prettily perky Zerbinetta, her coloratura flowing like liquid silver.
The Vienna Philharmonic gave a disappointingly workmanlike performance for Daniel Harding, a million miles away from last year's Frau ohne Schatten under Thielemann. Where was the sparkle, where was the magic? It didn't seem to bother the audience too much though - the reception was overwhelmingly positive.
For anyone thinking of attending - ignore the 2h45m timing on the Festival website. From start to finish it's nearly 4 hours long.
Production photos (above): SN
Curtain call photos (below): intermezzo.typepad.com