Kathleen Battle steals the show again

In this next episode of our wallow in Met nostalgia we  are looking at the 1988 production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.  It’s a starry affair with James Levine conducting, Jessye Norman in the title role, James King as Bacchus, Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta and Tatiana Troyanos as the Komponist.  There’s even a bit of luxury casting in the minor roles with Barbara Bonney and Dawn Upshaw among the nymphs.  It’s also as old fashioned as one could possibly imagine, being a revival of a production that premiered in 1962.

The stage designs are 1960s vintage “fantasy baroque” which means that there is lots of furniture and the costumes look like they were created by kids playing dress up at the Court of Versailles.  There are lots of sparkly things.  There’s absolutely no “concept”.  It’s all totally literal which is a problem because this is a rather thin plot and it benefits from an injection of ideas of which, here, there are none.

Blocking is absolutely basic and any directorial input beyond that is coming from Levine, at least if the rehearsal video is to be believed.  One Bodo Igesz is credited with the stage direction but what he did for his fee is a bit of a mystery.  The acting is pretty stilted with the stand out exception of Battle, who is charming and pretty much dominates the stage whenever she’s on it.  She is also responsible for what little dancing her troupe of dancers do.  Visually it’s so dull for the most part that much of the time I shut my eyes and just listened to the music.

Musically I was more than a touch disappointed.  As you would expect with this cast, the singing is fine.  Some of it is very fine indeed.  Jessye Norman’s Es gibt ein Reich raised the hairs on the back of my neck. King is bluff but works well enough in his rather thankless role.   Troyanos is solid if a bit histrionic in both voice and acting departments.  The nymphs produce some really gorgeous ensemble singing  and Battle, as always, is lovely to listen to though I’ve heard jauntier versions of Grossmächtige Prinzessin.

And that’s symptomatic of the problem.  Levine is clearly aiming for a big, lush sound (he pretty much tells the orchestra that in the rehearsal film) and he gets it but at the expense of clarity and articulation.  I reckon there’s a reason Strauss scored the piece for 36 instruments and “big sound” wasn’t it.  I had the chance last year to hear Andrew Davis conduct this score and it was worlds apart and miles better with clearly articulated rhythms, a real bounce and less wallowing in sound for sound’s sake.

The video direction is by Brian Large and, for once, I feel sorry for him.  This production is visually pretty dull and mostly all he can do is follow the sparkly bits around and muck about with camera angles.  He seems to get more desperate as the piece goes on and by the time Bacchus appears he’s using superpositions and multiple dissolves with abandon.  He doesn’t get any help from the only adequate picture quality.  There are three sound options; DTS 5.1, Dolby 5.1 and PCM stereo.  The DTS track isn’t bad though maybe the voices are a bit too forward.  The Dolby track is awful.  It’s like listening at the bottom of a bowl of sonic porridge.  Both, interestingly enough, were created from the original stereo tape using Deutsche Grammophon’s ANSI II process.  Documentation includes a synopsis, track listing and a rather smug essay by one Kenneth Chalmers.  Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Chinese.  There’s a 14 minute rehearsal film that’s well worth a look.  It’s very Levine centric which may or may not be just a function of the film.  I’m guessing not.

Of historical interest only.

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