Ariadne auf Naxos (Covent Garden); Der Rosenkavalier, Eine Nacht in Venedig (Coliseum)
New Statesman, Dec. 1976
Our musical capital is rich in current interest, as witness three Strauss operas, two Richards and a Johann, all within a bouquet's throw of each other. But the scene (like those works, some may feel) has a rather ominous glow of opulent but inflationary decadence. It was no surprise to find the Royal Opera being subsidised, by Imperial Tobacco; the weed in the Garden, with a faint aroma of Imperial Rome. There too patricians were flocking to see Ariadne on Naxos, or dropping into the Coliseum for fun and games; perhaps at the very moment when the barbarians were about to take over. Infiltration has already begun, to judge from the Jostling in the coffee and cloakroom queues.
But all the productions under review were exceedingly civilised. Der Rosenkavalier, the clear winner, is now withdrawn, leaving the others still running; but it is scheduled to return next February with a new cast. Much is missed but little is marred by its English singing version. Hofmannsthal's art was already steeped in English sources; thus his plot and characterization here are strongly coloured by Congreve (Baron Ochs is the concentrated essence of Sir Wilfull Witwoud, while the name Faninal may well be a subconscious echo of Fainall). The visual presentation is beholden to Beardsley, also much admired and studied by Hofmannsthal. The entire work is jewelled and intricate yet functional and communicative, like the 18th-century timepiece it is.
The right balance was not struck until the entry of Baron Ochs, well enunciated and enacted by Dennis Wicks. Thereafter everyone's words could be heard; and the orchestra, under the apt and able direction of- Mark Elder, wound up the action and kept the plot ticking impeccably. Time, in all its moods and tenses, is the mainspring. We bear the 20th century describing the 18th in terms of the 19th (from Schubert to another Strauss). The married and mature Marschallin dallies with a much younger lover (Octavian, the Principal Boy part well taken by Josephine Barstow) in an affair so anachronistic that it's less adultery than adolescentery. The imbroglio goes like clockwork; score and stage resound with effective exits and entrances, comings and goings. Sunrise and curtain-rise, over the grande dame and her beardless boyfriend are heralded by exultantly erotic horn-crows that intimate a further closing of the generation gap. More subtle and moving are the eloquent flashes of silence from the orchestra, for example, at the thought of topping all the household clocks to stay the ravages of time: the silver rose, symbol of a fadeless beauty, is presented to the virginal rival Sophie (Joy Roberts, delectably vernal in voice and costume). Ava June's Feldmarschallin, outstanding among a strong cast, was autumnal only in attire; her singing and acting had the lingering warmth of a long summer.
Ariadne auf Naxos promised even better, with some famous names, a new production, and a score and libretto which are arguably even more inspired than those of Der Rosenkavalier. Hofmannsthal's gifts were surely for symbolism rather than realism; indeed, his genius for allegory may said to display a complete myth-understanding of the real world. No wonder he is famous for his Jedermann (Everyman), which adds German significance to an English import. Ariadne the prima donna and Zerbinetta the soubrette spell out, an A to Z guide to emotive life, from tragedy queen to fille de joie. They are flung together by fate when their two starring vehicles are forced to collide head-on by the whim of a Philistine patron, who decrees simultaneous performance so as to finish in good time for the firework display, his real highlight of the evening. That point, like many another, was amusingly made by Paul Hansard in the very well spoken part of the Major-Domo; at each “Feuerwerk” his face lit up. But some of the squibs were decidedly damp, especially the jaded fun of theharlequinade improvised to amuse the consolable heroine. This divertissement was soblatantly aimed at the audience, not at Ariadne, that it fully deserved its failure with both.All it diverted was one's attention, from words and music too masterly to miss. Other dazzling highlights were dipped or dimmed, in playing and singing as in staging. Neither Edo de Waart's tempi nor the characterisations were always steady or strong enough to be truly illuminating. Heather Harper's Ariadne monologue had moments of radiance, and Geraint Evans as the Music Master was consistently polished. But the leading light was Yvonne Minton, despite an occasional wavering of intensity. Her taxing task was to embody, the dictum of Yeats: “The nobleness of the arts is the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy.” These extremes meet in the key figure of the Composer, a demanding travesti role in which the ecstasy of creation meets with the agony of rejection. Its interpreter must go deep inside the character and sing out through its laughing or weeping masks of comedy, or tragedy. This idea, according to some etymologists, lies at the root of the whole conception of impersonation; Yvonne Minton’s was in the true classical tradition.
The same might be said, on a less exalted but still elevated level, of Valerie Masterson in A Night in Venice. Her tipsy scene, with its heady blend of sweet and dry, sparkle and bouquet, was among the interpolations and adaptations designed to make Johann Strauss dramatically viable. Unlike his namesake, the Waltz King had little sense of stage timing. In the result the work remains a patchwork, and its material though colourful is often thin; but it was never ragged, thanks to some deft underpinning from the conductor, Henry Krips. Among a talented cast, Terry Jenkins was expressive and handsome of voice and feature. Given seasonal good will, this agreeable entertainment will do well enough as a pantomime, with sumptuous sets, a transformation scene, assorted carnival novelties, and a lively and elegant Commedia dell’Arte ballet. At least this is the kind of good clean decadence that is suitable for the whole family.