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Naughty Zerbinetta

Covent Garden
09/06/2002 -  and 9, 11, 14, 17, 21, 26 September
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Thomas Allen (Music Master), Christoph Quest (Major Domo), Dean Robinson (Lackey), Edgaras Montvidas (Officer), Sophie Koch (Composer), Robert Brubaker (Bacchus), D'Arcy Bleiker (Wigmaker), Marlis Petersen (Zerbinetta), Petra Lang (Ariadne), John Graham Hall (Dancing Master), Alice Coote (Dryad), Lisa Larson (Naiad), Rachel Nicholls (Echo), Barry Banks (Brighella), Nathan Gunn (Harlequin),

Royal Opera orchestra and chorus

Antonio Pappano (conductor), Christof Loy (director)

Ingenuity and subtlety rather than grand gestures distinguished Antonio Pappano's long awaited debut performance as Music Director of the Royal Opera. The choice of Ariadne, a recondite piece for connoisseurs about the travails of putting on an opera, neatly balances insider jokes available to everybody with musical and theatrical challenges. (The arbitrary demands of a corporate sponsor have more resonance these days with rumoured ructions at Another Place, of course.) Both Pappano, directing the Royal Opera House orchestra in great form, and Christof Loy, in a production full of human detail and gentle humour, achieved a wonderful integration of the schematic oppositions and technical formalities in something that was pure theatre, with enough life in it to be moving. If there was no resolution of the dialectic between existential passion and casual sex, high art and entertainment, there was a place for both.

The cast was also the result of some negotiation with circumstances. As Bacchus, Robert Brubaker, a young American tenor who was Chairman Mao at the ENO a couple of years ago, replaced Gosta Winbergh, who sadly died in March this year. The hitherto unknown Marlis Petersen replaced Natalie Dessay as Zerbinetta. An early outing as a soprano by Petra Lang in the title role was also considered problematic by some with opinions. In the event, though, except for one idiot who booed Petersen during the applause after "Grossmächtige Prinzessin", the audience seemed justifiably happy with the performance.

A well-rehearsed and apparently enthusiastic ensemble was suitably fraught in the backstage prologue, set in a shabby downstairs space beneath an expensively unused hotel lobby that might be Herr Sacher's. Thomas Allen was touchingly raddled (in person and voice) as the Music Master, an establishment counterpart to John Graham Hall's sleazy Dancing Master, here the manager of a non-dancing, non-playing Spinal Tap. D'Arcy Bleiker's Wigmaker looked as if he might have been more at home as a roadie, but his short row with the tenor was well characterized and sung, like the other small roles that seem to belong in a movie as much as in an opera or theatre work. Sophie Koch was charming and moving as the Composer, in sympathetic rapport with the Music Master but still glowing with idealism that finally crashed and burned. The encounter with Zerbinetta was handled realistically, two randy young people smelling the pheromones across their cultural differences.

The amusingly lumpen comedians ambled about in a stoned manner in the first half, plausibly enough, but they were less successfully worked into the opera itself, where they did little except snog Zerbinetta. The setting was initially a dining room with trompe l'oeil scenery, and transformed into a midnight blue space eventually lit with stars. As in the prologue, it was a neat and unobtrusive combination of historical context and timelessness. The principal singers likewise played with stylised realism. Lang's Ariadne sang gloriously, capturing wonderfully Ariadne's ecstasy of despair that finally melted into contentment (as Turandot ought to). Petersen's Zerbinetta was the same long-legged girl as in the prologue. She performed her showcase aria as an enthusiastic riff on desire rather than a bravura display, making it sound easy in the process, though undermining its generic relationship with Singspiel. Brubaker was lyrical as Bacchus, not quite a full-strength Heldentenor, but vocally alluring in a thankless role.

H.E. Elsom



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