Ariadne auf Naxos at Glyndebourne

Opera productions which update the setting to a period different from that of the original are very common these days. But some of the updatings are much more successful than others and it is worth looking for reasons why this should be. If the audience is able to identify more closely with the chosen period than that of the original, then the drama is likely to have greater poignancy because of its associations. Some obvious examples include Jonathan Miller’s production of Rigoletto set in Little Italy of New York City and Deborah Warner’s production of La Bohème set in Left Bank Paris in the 1960s.

At Glyndebourne, The German director Katharina Thoma’s idea of transposing Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos from an 18th century aristocratic house to Glyndebourne itself during the Second World War might have been a good one. Clearly, the setting is meaningful for this particular audience; and the period of the Second World War, when most individuals had to confront hardship, uncertainty, loss, even death, might facilitate empathizing with the plight of Ariadne on her island grieving the loss of her lover Theseus. But very few of us associate the Christie mansion with the care of the war wounded, and so the hospital environment for the Greek heroine within the familiar building did not have a particular resonance for us. Nor was the functioning of the vaudeville troupe as an ENSOR entertainment outfit plausible, least of all when Zerbinetta, the leading artist, was strapped to a bed as a mental health patient because of her aberrant (nymphomaniac?) behaviour. More generally, these visual images worked against, rather than with, the music.

Does anyone, like me, remember a Welsh National Opera production of Ariadne, mounted by Giles Havergal in 1987? It also drew a parallel between Ariadne’s loss and the victims of war (in this case the First World War), but presented the piece in a more abstract setting Havergal’s conception, because of its understatement, its bitter-sweet quality and its sensitivity was not only closer to the original but also reinterpreted the piece in a most moving way.