Notes and Editorial Reviews
My first thought upon hearing this Ariadne in English was, "Why isn't the Prologue always done in the vernacular?" Perhaps it was the presence of the miraculous Stephen Fry as the Major-Domo: Speaking as if he were picking up the words between his thumb and index finger, his appalling gravity is by itself enough to make the Composer weep. Being able to hear each intricate request and snipe, every bit of rapturous sincerity from the Composer, really makes this Prologue come to life. The Opera itself is equally well-treated in Christopher Cowell's translation, with even much of Zerbinetta's aria--taken quite quickly--understandable.
Perhaps it might be more awkward with a less sophisticated cast, but the combination
of Americans, Canadians, Brits, and Australians, all singing in their native tongue, is comfortable and natural, even if our Bacchus is the only singer who sounds particularly lower-48. (This is not a criticism; at least he doesn't try to "Brit" it up.) Alice Coote's Composer--passionate, angry, romantic--with lines delivered rapidly, is superb; only Tatiana Troyanos makes the rushing to and fro, the desperation, more vivid on disc. Alan Opie's Music Master, sounding oddly like Thomas Allen, is sharply characterized; John Graham-Hall's Dancing Master is properly fussy and witty.
Christine Brewer's Prima Donna/Ariadne is towering. More fiery than Jessye Norman, less silvery than Gundula Janowitz, she still has absolute dignity, and I cannot recall hearing this role so easily sung. Top notes ring out with utter confidence and low notes are merely a lower extension--no register breaks, no surprises. Her attention to the text is sensitive; her opera seria attitude in her opening, low-lying monolog is delivered with just the right deadly seriousness, and "There is a land" soars exquisitely. Her soft singing in the final duet is stunning and her grander utterances gleam.
Robert Dean Smith may lack the "ping" that one longs for as Bacchus, but he's fearless, untiring, always steady, always in tune and honest with dynamic shadings. Roderick Williams (Harlequin), Matthew Rose (Truffaldino), John Graham-Hall (Scaramuccio), and Wynne Evans (Brighella) are a superb quartet, their ensemble singing impeccable, and each manages to create a profile.
Gillian Keith's Zerbinetta is lovely and flirtatious in the Prologue, but some listeners might be a bit put off by her "Your gracious Royal Highness". The voice has a sharp edge to it in the stratosphere, but I was won over by her amazing accuracy and agility (only the start of one high note goes momentarily astray at the very end of the aria), and her flawlessly-placed trills are in the early-Dessay class. She doesn't sing with as much "face" as the French soprano (who does?), but it is still a terrific performance, particularly at such a tempo. And frankly, the "sharp edge" may be due to the somewhat over-bright recording that makes the other women occasionally sound harsh as well.
As a bonus, the first CD begins with Strauss' 35-minute orchestral suite from Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme Op. 60, a playful take-off on 18th-century style, with tunes by Jean-Baptiste Lully. It is as handsomely played as the opera, with Richard Armstrong leading it all with confidence, wit, and vigor. As a sui generis performance, this Ariadne can't be recommended highly enough; straight from the shoulder, it would also do as your only Ariadne, correct language notwithstanding. Turn down the treble a bit.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60 by Richard Strauss
Stephen Fry (Voice),
Alice Coote (Mezzo Soprano),
Gillian Keith (Soprano),
Christine Brewer (Soprano),
Robert Dean Smith (Tenor)
Scottish Chamber Orchestra
Written: 1911/1916; Germany
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