The Sunday Times, 5 August 2012
Hugh Canning
Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, Salzburger Festspiele, 29. Juli 2012
A new broom is sweeping through the elegant corridors and grand auditoriums of the Salzburg Festival, still classical music’s most glitzy, high-carat event. Under the aegis of the Viennese Alexander Pereira, who made the Opernhaus in Zurich the most prolific of its kind in Europe for 20 years, the stars are back with a ven­geance: Anna Netrebko sings Mimi in La bohème, Jonas Kaufmann makes his debut as Bacchus in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and Placido Domingo is trotting out almost the last tenor role — a low one — in his repertory, Bajazet in Tamerlano.

There is more than a whiff of Pereira’s Zurich to his opening productions, The Magic Flute and Ariadne auf Naxos, both of which strongly feature artists closely identified with his era in Switzerland. Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Jens-Daniel Herzog are, respectively, conductor and director of the Mozart, while Sven-Eric Bechtolf — the new director of Salzburg’s theatre programme — is the ­creative mind behind the fes­tival’s ­veritable one-off version of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s ­theatrical caprice.
Salzburg claimed to be giving a rare outing to the original 1912 version of Ariadne auf Naxos, a laudable aim given that its creators were among the festival’s founding fathers. In the event, it proved nothing of the sort. True, the original, longer version of the opera was played, but instead of Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, Bechtolf has devised a fascinating entertainment that incorporates drama, most of Strauss’s delect­able score, and dance. It centres on Hofmannsthal’s discreet liaison with a grieving young widow, Ottonie von Degenfeld-Schonburg — apparently his inspiration for the ­abandoned Ariadne. It incorporates elements of Molière’s play and text from the later prologue, with which he and Strauss salvaged their hybrid flop to produce the masterpiece we know today. In the abstract, it might sound ­rarefied, but in the theatre, it proved entrancing.

Daniel Harding is no Karl Böhm — virtual “proprietor” of this opera here from 1954 to 1980 — but with the Vienna Philharmonic in the pit, he didn’t really need to be. As in The Magic Flute, the principal singers were good, but only one, Kaufmann, looked dashing in his gold leopard-skin and panther-print suit. After a throaty start, he sang gloriously.

Even so, this original Ariadne is just the kind of event that festivals are for, and Salzburg’s founders, Max Reinhardt, Strauss and ­Hofmannsthal, would surely have approved.


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