Holiday treat: Ariadne auf Naxos in Paris


(c) Susan Brodie

Comedy tonight!


Laurent Pelly's 2003 production of Ariadne auf Naxos has returned to Opera Bastille for eight performances this December. I was on hand to enjoy the show on opening night, December 11.


It's a typically quirky Pelly production, with the first act set in a grand and vaguely 30s-era salon dominated by a stairway and balcony downstage left, with falling snow visible beyond an upstage row of columns; the second act takes place in an abandoned construction site, with Ariadne asleep among concrete, rebar, and rubble (ignore that Gustav Klimt painting on the website). Lots of onstage vehicular traffic, with limos in the first act–met by servants in dirndl and lederhosen–and a VW bus appearing on the desert isle to disgorge Zerbinetta's Commedia troupe dressed for the beach.


The revival cast was in mostly fine form: from his first entrance the unflappable and hilarious Franz Mazura (86 years old!) stole the show in the speaking part of the Major Domo. Sophie Koch was the most persuasively boyish Composer I've ever seen, and her singing sounded rich and free. Martin Gantner had matters firmly under control as the Music Master. Paris Opera debutant Edwin Crossley-Mercer (such an English name for a Frenchman!) gave Harlequin a bumptious presence and plenty of voice. Naiad (Elena Tsallagova), Dryad (Diana Axentii), and Echo (Yun Jung Choi) blended mellifluously. No complaints about the rest of the secondary roles.


Instead of Diana Damrau, originally announced as Zerbinetta, we had Jane Archibald, a Canadian soprano who more than acquitted herself in her Paris Opera debut. Her stratospheric coloratura was impeccable and in tune, she moved well and looked nice in her bikini, but I wanted a bit more presence, more mischievous edge for the character. Tenor Stefan Vinke didn't do much acting, but his singing was solid–after hearing others struggle with Bacchus's stentorian lines it was a pleasure not to worry about whether he would make it through the punishing sing without cracking (though he did receive a few loud boos). Ricarda Merbeth sang a decent Ariadne but her acting, in weird contrast to Bacchus, was more appropriate to Elektra, all pacing, thrashing, and collapsing in heaps. I preferred her Paris Sieglinde last spring.


As restaged by Agathe Melinande the blocking needed more time to settle in–during both acts there was too much aimless walking across the stage; especially in the second act the wide Bastille stage seemed a great distance to traverse for no apparent reason. Bacchus especially could have used more direction than "walk slowly forward, sing, fade backwards into the shadows", though really there's not much one can do with the part. Had the poor Composer been subjected to a Broadway out-of-town tryout for his magnum opus, changes certainly would have been imposed by the producers. But it's hard to know what to do with Ariadne, so determinedly bipolar, mixing high art and low humor, the intimate with the infinite. I would like to see this production in the smaller Palais Garnier, where it was originally staged. And while I'm speculating, why not a production with two directors collaborating, one for each act, say Pelly and Robert Wilson? (Ok, maybe not…) 


I enjoyed Philippe Jordan's Strauss more than the Wagner and Puccini I've heard him conduct in the last year. He's excellent at highlighting details, which was just right for the score's cabaret side, and he alternated between sweep and suspension in the grander passages. For all its oddities, Ariadne is a wonderful score, with gorgeous music and two career-making parts (Zerbinetta and The Composer), which Paris delivered at a very high level.