Ariadne Auf Naxos at the Vienna Staatsoper: The Triumph of Edita Gruberova By Irving Spitz
The performance of Richard Strauss’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, must stand out as one of the highlights of the current season at the Vienna Staatsoper. Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s libretto consists of a prologue set in the palatial home of a rich Viennese. To entertain his guests, he has commissioned a composer to present his new opera based on the Greek mythological story of the Cretan princess, Ariadne, who was abandoned by her husband on the island of Naxos. The rich Viennese has also engaged a troupe of comedians for a Commedia dell’arte (Comedy of Art) as entertainment. Since the firework display for the guests must begin promptly at nine o’clock, the rich man’s major domo gives instructions that both the commedia dell’arte and the opera must be given simultaneously. Bedlam ensues and the soprano and tenor of the opera are scandalized. Nevertheless the composer agrees to cut the opera after discussions with Zerbinetta, leader of the Commedia dell’arte who puts order in the chaos. In the actual opera, the disbanded Ariadne is inconsolable despite all efforts of the commedia dell’arte. All ends well when the god Bacchus makes an appearance and Ariadne joins him in an ascent to the heavens. The contrast of the faithful Ariadne with the frivolous streetwise Zerbinetta makes for a fascinating psychological interplay.
The production, directed and produced by Filippo Sanjust, premiered almost 30 years ago. It is somewhat dated but nevertheless remains practical and still serviceable. What really stood out was the splendid opera orchestra. Scored for a rather small ensemble, conductor Friedrich Haider brought out all its subtle nuances. The orchestra was magnificent in both the baroque-like comic atmosphere with the commedia dell’arte, which was juxtaposed with the drama of a classical Wagnerian opera. The latter culminated in Ariadne’s solo passages and her duet with Bacchus.
Canadian soprano, Adrianne Pieczonka was impressive both as the tempestuous prima donna in the prologue and subsequently as Ariadne. Her powerful soprano was clearly heard even in the fortissimo passages. German tenor Wolfgang Schmidt succeeded in the punishing but short role of Bacchus. Also very accomplished as the composer was German mezzo-soprano Cornelia Salje. She was vocally sound and dramatically impressive both when conveying disappointment and anger at having to alter the opera and then with her feelings of love for Zerbinetta.
The composer was not the only one smitten by Zerbinetta. Indeed the whole audience succumbed to the magic of Slovakian coloratura soprano, Edita Gruberova. Zerbinetta has become one of her signature roles and later in the current season, she gave her 200th performance of that role. There are other great Zerbinettas currently around including the French Natalie Dessay and German Diana Damrau. Now aged 59, Edita Gruberova can certainly hold her own. Her voice still retains beauty, perfection as well as vocal agility and clarity. This is combined with an engaging stage personality. All this was especially evident in her showstopper plea to Ariadne where Gruberova brought out all her vocal fireworks. I first heard her in the Staatsoper in 1979 as the Queen of the Nights in The Magic Flute. That performance remains indelibly ingrained in my mind. Ten years later she enthralled the audience in a performance at the Metropolitan Opera as Violetta in La Traviata conducted by Carlos Kleiber. It is most unfortunate that her appearances in the US are too infrequent. US opera buffs are deprived of hearing one of the greatest of all coloraturas.#