Friday, June 7, 2013

Aridane at Glyndebourne What went wrong for me.

A few days ago I watched the live streamed performance of the  Glyndebourne's new production of Ariadne Auf Naxos by Richard Strauss directed by Katharina Thoma. This is one of my favourite operettas. It meant much to me as it was the first opera my soon to be husband took me to see at the ENO in 1971 and we saw it at Glyndebourne that summer in a delightful haze of love and champagne. I have produced scenes from it in Auckland even if I did not manage the whole opera as I could never find a Bacchus. Ariadne could definitely be classed as our tune!

So it was with a mixed anticipation that I awaited this web cast. I had read the reviews that were highly critical but as I have been on the receiving end of many an adverse reviews I was not unduly worried and indeed Act I although quirky, gave me no cause for alarm but then came Act II.

Sometimes in life one can say three words too many! Let me explain. As a director I have to deal with sensitive performers. Opera singers are their own instrument and you have to be careful when you criticise as they are sensitive. As a director I have to ensure they give a good performance so it is no good destroying their confidence. However careful one is sometimes one just says that three words too many and the relationship is all over. The trust is lost and there is nothing you can do about it. The relationship is gone forever. One might just as well pack it in at that moment.

Life is like that too. Sometimes an event or a performance can be life changing and life is never the same afterwards. It usually happens by accident and it never intended to ruin one's life but it happens and it does. As a director and a producer one has a responsibility to ensure that what you present to the public does not become three words too many. If you do you may be guilty of alienating not only this audience but many audiences to come.  I feel that Glyndebourne and Ms Thoma are guilty on this occasion. It ruined Glyndebourne for me and I suspect for many more too. I feel I can no longer trust their judgment.

I have had two events that have haunted me for all my life. Curiously both events have haunted me during the last week. There is nothing I can do about it. They just happened. One happened when I was four. I am still living with that today and will post about that tomorrow and one was this production of Ariadne - not quite so devastating way but still unfortunate.

Now for Ariadne. Normally I can forgive a production that I find distasteful. Maybe this rant will get it out of my system so here goes because this production has ruined Ariadne for me. Every time I see Ariadne or hear it in the future I shall think of its dark side and feel cheated.

There is a fashion in opera these days of reinterpreting works of art in a modern way. It is felt that giving a new slant brings the work into the present and gives it a second life. It is done all the time  with Shakespeare and with costume drama as it is cheaper to mount and costume for the present time and lack of finance can be excused by being relevant.

It is the fashion especially in Germany to look for the Dark Side of works of art and this is what Katarina Thoma has done with Strauss's Ariadne. It must have sounded a wonderful idea. Stage this 18th century opera which is normally  expensive to costume and set it in a small country house in wartime England in 1941 with the Blitz approaching. It could be construed that this was Glyndebourne that was being bombed. It is actually an innovative concept and maybe that is where is should have remained but in the staging of it something went horribly wrong.


The first big error was to mistake  Ariadne auf Naxos for a grand opera. An opera of any sort it is not! It is an operetta, a musical, a fluff of nonsense. Richard Strauss underneath a swathe of orchestration is really a composer of operettas. Even his dark works like Salome and Electra  heard without orchestration on a piano sound like second rate Johann Strauss. Sorry but they do!

Even thinking about presenting its dark side was a colossal mistake. It is like showing the dark side of The Sound of Music or The Desert Song. Everything in life has a dark side if you look for it and this operetta like Die Fledermaus can have one as Hitler trotted it out with constant regularity to encourage the troops. Fine to give it this interpretation in a regular opera house but perhaps not at Glyndebourne.

Why not?

Because Glyndebourne has a very particular atmosphere. It was built by a very upper class Englishman for his wife and it embodies all the worst aspects of the breed. Visiting the old Glyndebourne became the thing to do socially. Tickets were restricted to those in the loop and if by accident a member of the ordinary public  happened to be given one they could not only watch the opera but be entertained by the British upper classes enjoying themselves in the interval sitting in the car park by the Rolls Royce with champers and smoked salmon. They never ventured onto the lawn.

Glyndebourne became the place for romantic evenings such as I enjoyed with Miles. We picnicked on the lawn alone as the upper classes were in the car park! The operas chosen were definitely safe and beautifully produced. One did not go to Glyndebourne to have moments of discomfort  as Peter Hall required in his productions of that time in the 70's one went to be seen!

From the age of 10 until I left Britain in 1975 I went to Covent Garden and ENO practically on a weekly basis but I only got to Glyndebourne twice and once was for Ariadne. It was magical. An evening I shall never forget. One should never go back and I should not have watched this current Ariadne. That was my mistake. I was expecting a comedy and I got a statement about the horrors of the 2nd World War that I had almost lived through. I was in for a grim evening.  I felt cheated.

So where did the production go wrong?

Comedy does not travel well. What is funny in Germany is not funny in UK. We have a very different take on the Second World War and employing a German to make fun of the bombing of Britain was hardly tactful. There is a palm tree that droops in Act I like a floppy penis. Evidently Germans find this hilarious. In UK this went down like a cup of cold sick  as UK actors say of a joke that fails to amuse.

Ariadne is a comedy! Yes it is a comedy. In comedies it is essential that the audience likes the characters. The characters can be unfortunate, murderous tyrants, like the horrid Spode in Jeeves   but they have to be loved and that takes brilliant stagecraft to pull  this off. Comedy needs a lightness of touch and a sense of fun. Ariadne is a comedy.  The cast needs to be superb and this cast looked like amateurs in this area. In the first Act they almost got away with it. Act I deals with the fact that the two opposing companies of serious art and musical comedy find it difficult enough to have to appear together on the same programme  but the shock and horror of having to do  it simultaneously because of the fireworks at 9 pm is too much to bear. It is a truly funny situation and does not need any help from a ultra clever interpretation.

Act II is the performance when the audience watches to find out how these two differing art styles work together in practice. Actually in a traditional production  this happens extremely well because they are all characters are professionals and realists and make the best of the situation. There are some good tunes, a ravishing coloratura show stopping aria and a wonderful ending. One goes away feeling elated and uplifted, even with no champers, that life is worth living, the evening and the expense was worth the effort of dressing up, traveling to Brighton and picnicking in the rain.

We didn't get a performance we got a parade of the horrors of war and shell shock. This production dragged out every dramatic war cliche that one could imagine in a depressing hour of embarrassment. Haven't I been so clever to think of this screamed out as the next cliche was served up.

It was not helped that the cast were past their prime. Comedy is the realm of the young. They can get away with saying the unthinkable with a twinkle in the eye and the excuse that they are young. Out of the mouth of babes! I have done this myself.

The Ariadne may look like the back of a bus diva in Act I, many diva's are, but in the second she has to become and sound like the ravishing young maiden who captivates a God. This poor lady was about as sexy as a 60 year old bus conductor. Having her make love behind a transparent curtain on her back with her legs in the air and a man on top as the final coup de theatre was excruciatingly bad taste for her and the audience. Cringe time.

The soubrette Zerbinetta, who should charm the audience out of their seats, was portrayed as an ageing scrubber with  nymphomaniac tendencies. The poor soprano was much too old and although she did her best nobody could have got away with being tied up in a straight jacked and masturbating at the same time. This was not hinted at but graphically portrayed. Zerbinetta has to be sexy. She can be naughty and like sex but she has to captivate every man in the audience who wants to sleep with her and every woman who would give her eye teeth to be like her. Marilyn Monroe did this perfectly.  No applause at all. This must be a first for this aria but no one could applaud. It was too horrible.  Fancy have a show stopping aria and being directed to do it like this.

Not a hint of comedy was allowed in the entire Act. The horrors of war were laid on with a sledge hammer. The operetta Ariadne  didn't stand  chance. It is a marsh mallow not a charging rogue elephant!

The final insult was that although the horrors of wartime Britain was being depicted with the Luft Waffe bombing Sussex and little Union Jacks pathetically displayed the whole thing was sung in German. It was obvious that Ms Thoma had a very German vision of how the British coped with her countrymen's unsuccessful invasion of our land. That anyone could find this remotely funny or credible is beyond my ken. In fact it was a bit insulting. None of us were playing about producing home made operas at that time as we were all sitting in the dark waiting for an invasion. My father was down on Brighton beach with a rifle and ten rounds of ammunition that did not fit to fight Hitler's Blitz Krieg!

The audience was given the impression that the unpleasant characters deserved their fate and that somehow they were responsible for what happened to them. Fiddling while Rome burned. Anyway by the end of the hour I was drained. It was not so much a moment of discomfort but a century of discomfort.  It was for me truly bad taste. Being English I feel guilty about this!

Sadly I don't think I can ever enjoy this opera again. I am just so cross at what has been done to it. Anyone seeing this for the first time will be put off for life. It might have been intended to make one think but it made me furious. If that is the outcome that was desired it certainly hit the mark.

I always knew that going to Glyndebourne was a mistake for me, I just did not belong but for one night in 1971 it held me under its spell. Now I know I was wrong to go there! It is the epitome of what I dislike about the old class ridden Britain some of whom would have welcomed Hitler. For once it showed the whited sepulchre of class and money that has bought the UK to where it is today. The greed and ostentation of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme is alive and well and living in Sussex.

I wonder if anyone will be brave enough to ask for their money back? Ariadne Auf Naxos and Glyndebourne will never be the same for me  again.

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