Friday 11 July 2008

Finish in time for fireworks!

Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera House, London

Darkness falls on the Royal Opera House’s magnificent gilt-and-velvet auditorium, and the patrons in dinner jackets and evening dresses settle down. As the orchestra sets up a quiver of anticipation with Richard Strauss’s overture, the red curtain rises on a cream, pillared corridor strikingly like the ones we have just left. Couples in evening dress, tetchy or excited, arrive through the big doors. We’re watching ourselves on stage. Then someone obtrudes, his long greasy hair and denim jacket as incongruous as if a stagehand had just mingled with the stalls ticketholders.

The lift doors open, he gets in with his well-dressed companions and, as the lift descends, the entire corridor rises, armchairs, people and all, to reveal a workspace painted in hospital grey, unvarnished wooden partitions and uncarpeted floors. The backstage area: the performers arrive to prepare their work.

An extravagant theatrical moment, when not a note has been sung, but its purpose is clear. The scene is set precisely where we, the paying audience, do not go. When the Major Domo tells the Music Master that his Master’s guests want to be entertained between dinner and fireworks at nine, it’s us he’s talking about.

The Music Master’s young protégé has written an opera. It’s the tragic story of Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos by her lover Theseus. But the Composer, a young man sung by soprano Kristine Jepson, is appalled to discover that the patron has booked two types of entertainment. As well as Ariadne’s tragic fate, the guests will be enjoying the comedy and dancing of a troupe led by flirty Zerbinetta, who we’ve already seen inviting a rakish soldier into her makeshift dressing room. The grubby young man we saw arriving is one of four comedians performing with her, and the man in the yellow three piece suit with big lapels is her dancing master.

It’s a classic and glorious comic set up, and director Christof Loy works it beautifully, drawing out every joke and nuance of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and Strauss’ score. Everything about the two troupes is different. Deborah Voigt’s Primadonna and Robert Dean Smith’s Tenor glide around in dressing gowns, hair in nets ready for their wigs. The comedians mooch in jeans or even underwear, their music as light and easy on the ear as we imagine their jokes would be. The opera troupe sing everything like a scene from Wagner. 

If this were reality TV, there would be little sympathy for either side. The comedy dancers would be sluts and chavs with no appreciation of high culture, and the composer and his singers would be snobs with no understanding of the real world. But this is opera, and the Composer’s agony at having his vision distorted is expressed in the most exquisite song.

Yes, we laugh at his impotent rage when he is reminded that he can’t walk out, because he needs the fee to live on for six months. But it’s a wry laugh. After all, are we not the very ones who will be ‘falling asleep after dinner’, as Zerbinetta predicts? If art is being prostituted to please a philistine appetite, don’t they mean us, with our pre-theatre dinners and post-theatre drinks? The Major Domo’s ludicrous demand that comedy interludes and tragic opera must be combined, and still finish in time for the fireworks; isn’t that exactly what we’ve come to see Richard Strauss pull off?

The jobbing entertainers take the news with equanimity. They’re used to improvising, and a rattle through the Ariadne plot is all they need. And the Composer is forced to reconsider his dismissive attitude to them when Zerbinetta expresses her deeper feelings to him in song. In fact, their moment of connection seems to inspire him anew, just as the performers are being hurried away to start the show.

Then, Prologue over, we return for the one Act of the opera. No sign of either the bourgeois corridor or the brutal below-stairs. We’re on the bare floorboards of a country house, where black-clad Ariadne lies desolate amid guttering candles. Sombre and slow, with three women in place of an opera chorus, it’s clearly not going to be light entertainment. Ariadne wants to die, waits to die, and her three companions are so used to her laments that they seem immune to her sorrow.

Then, in a masterfully understated piece of comic timing, a Comedian comes in. Then another, and another and, at exactly the right moment, another. One, for no apparent reason, wears a kilt. All four stand and watch the grieving Ariadne, as if wondering what to do. Should they join in, or break the mood with a joke? There’s an interesting tension in the air.

This second half refuses utterly to tie up the open ends of the Prologue. Something began between Zerbinetta and the Composer, but we will never know what, as the Composer never appears again, nor does his mentor the Music Master, the Major Domo, or a handful of other characters. We are left to read between the lines of the show itself, or to regard the Prologue as a separate piece. In fact, the Prologue was written later, a replacement for the play, Der Bürger als Edelmann, within which Ariadne auf Naxos was originally the finale. So what are we to make of this collision between high tragedy and low fun?

In one way, the fictional backstory liberates us to enjoy the mixture of moods and stories. When Gillian Keith’s Zerbinetta gives us her virtuoso coloratura arias, she really does seem to be extemporising, enjoying the way her voice climbs higher and finds increasingly elaborate decorations, an affectionate imitation of the Primadonna’s arias that surpasses the original. When her three hopeful lovers sing of ‘singing and dancing’, they kick out their legs in a parody of themselves as music-hall clowns.

But in another way, the Prologue draws attention to a mixture of styles that was once normal. From Shakespeare’s clowns to South Pacific, the idea that tragedy can accommodate laughter, and entertainment include deep emotion, is not new. Before Wagner complained about ‘frivolous’ composers who allow themselves to be seduced by easy fame, the aspiration to be both serious and popular was not always problematic.

In fact, Zerbinetta’s disarming honesty, to which Ariadne seems immune, is a crucial part of the tragic storyline. Her failure to be faithful to any of her string of lovers starts out in contrast to Ariadne’s loyalty to disloyal Theseus. But when Ariadne, looking forward to the oblivion of death, finds instead the self-abandonment of love with Bacchus, it is an echo of Zerbinetta’s self-aware refrain; each new man is a god in her eyes. And Bacchus himself, in this production, seems only to be a god when Ariadne tells him so.

It takes skill and courage to pull off big emotions shortly after a comic interlude, and to some extent the Prologue makes it harder, not easier. Ariadne, expecting the God to take her away on his ship, finds instead that she is carried away emotionally. ‘Is there no journey?’ she asks, as the stars come out in the very room in which she sits. In spite of all the comic images planted in our minds, of Ariadne haggling over how many arias she gets, or Bacchus, without his wig, refusing to perform with the comedians, in spite of the unflattering image of ourselves as uncultured consumers more interested in food than Art, we let the music and the words take us with them.

The Composer in the Prologue was right. Music gathers courage to itself: the courage of performers, director and designer to make demands of the audience. Trusted with the licence to laugh, we can also be open to the serious, and allow the transcendence of Strauss’ music to carry us away. Ariadne leaves with Bacchus; Zerbinetta’s new biker love carries her tenderly out. After all, they were all part of the same story.

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