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Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Gundula Janowitz (Primadonna/Ariadne), René Kollo (Tenor/Bacchus), Edita Gruberova (Zerbinetta), Trudeliese Schmidt (Composer), Walter Berry (Music Master), Heinz Zednik (Dance Master/Brighella), Barry McDaniel (Harlekin), Kurt Equiluz (Scaramuccio), Manfred Jungwirth (Truffaldin), Hilda di Groote (Naiad), Axelle Gall (Dryad), Olivera Miljakovic (Echo), Erich Kunz (House Master), Georg Tichy (Wig Maker), Alfred Sramek (Lackey), Peter Eber (Officer), Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm (conductor), Filippo Sanjust (production director, set, and costume designer), John Vernon (director)
Recorded in Vienna (1978) – 127’
Deutsche Grammophon 00440 073 4370 – Booklet in English, German, and French; Subtitles in English, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese

In considering a purchase of DG's recent release of the 1978 film Ariadne auf Naxos, featuring the forces of the Vienna State Opera under Karl Böhm, one should be aware that the production is just that - a film - based on a notable stage production to be sure, but reproduced in a studio ambiance with a pre-recorded, synched soundtrack. That alone will eliminate this DVD for some listeners, and more's the pity; for despite the set's considerable musical pleasures, and they are considerable indeed, the film documents one of the most notable of modern productions the opera has enjoyed, and reminds us of the strength in cohesive performance ensemble. It was also in the premiere of this very production in 1976 that Edita Gruberova forever left behind an under-nourishing diet of comprimaria roles, her Zerbinetta establishing her as an international coloratura celebrity.

The film was directed by the production's original director and designer, Filippo Sanjust, the video direction here undertaken by John Vernon. Sanjust's production is traditional, sensible, and most appealing to the eye with its frame of stage architecture intermingling with bits of antiquity and colorfully flowing period costume designs. The lighting is perhaps a bit unrelentingly bright and unvarying as was likely necessary for film purposes, but the overall impact is most attractive and well conceived.

The cast could hardly be bettered. Gundula Janowitz is a superb Prima Donna/Ariadne, luscious in ripe, lyric tone, and dramatically effective. Gruberova's sound was never well caught in recordings - what shimmered caught live could turn a bit glassy on tape. That said, her performance here easily suggests what all the shouting was about. Gruberova's sparkling timbre copes fearlessly with the fiendish vocal line without resorting to the snatched breaths and dodged hurdles that even some of the role's most famous interpreters have resorted to; she is also one of the few who observes the extended trill in the climax of the big aria. The Composer of Trudeliese Schmidt is treasurable. Some will prefer a soprano here, but Schmidt's performance is lyrically dispatched and deeply felt. René Kollo is a bit frustrating, bringing a clarion tone to the formidable role that can turn pressured on high with unappealing result, but conversely is capable of spinning reams of lovely tone in the more lyrical writing.

The overall ensemble is surely one of the most delightful cadres of modern singers assembled for the piece with particular kudos to the wonderful Erich Kunz, whose vainglorious House Master amusingly patronizes everyone in sight, and the masculine Harlekin of Barry McDaniel. Hilda de Groote, Axelle Gall, and Olivera Miljakovic form a mellifluous trio of nymphs.

The vocal synching is well done enough to allow one’s awareness of it to generally recede into the background. Video and sound quality are excellent.

Mark Thomas Ketterson




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