‘How to Make the Most of Camping Out at the Opera’ by Carl Fulbrook

(Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera House, 25 June 2014)

  • Ariadne auf Naxos makes for a queer experience. I mean this statement to be taken both ways: its pleasures are ambiguous and unsettling, and also: the opera and this production are positively larded with touches wont to tickle those in the audience weary of taking opera literally, taking it straight. A queer audience, if you will.
  • It pains me to digress before I’m even started, so I’ll avoid arguing for the special gay appeal of diva culture, of the operatic soprano, and of sundry theatrical women with a taste for sophisticated ruin. It’d be a reckless exaggeration to suggest that the pleasure Ariadne affords is exhaustively queer, or that one need be on that particular bus to enjoy such pleasures (which is anyway no guarantee). And yet so much about this performance thrilled me in a way that has nothing to do with ordinary aesthetic criteria but everything to do with, e.g. the delight in re-performing lines from All About Eve (i.e. camp), that to review it any other way would be dishonest, a bit closety.
  • This review isn’t very linear or straightforward; neither is Ariadne auf Naxos. It’s pasted together from different pieces, and we don’t know what to make of it because it’s at once pastiche and sincere. Its meanings are served equivocally.
  • (This paragraph has the synopsis, if you were wondering where it was.) One of the things that makes Ariadne auf Naxos so peculiar is that it refuses the ordinary theatrical suspension of disbelief. It is, briefly stated, an opera about a disastrous opera, which is the one you’re watching. (Of course, it’s about a lot more than that too, but we’ll get to that below.) The Prologue is background: the singers who will take roles in the Opera appear as themselves; the composer appears; the director appears. We begin in the midst of a backstage farce: entertainment has been planned that evening for a wealthy Patron, but now he wants it to be cut short. Plan A was to perform a serious opera in the Wagnerian mould, and then have an all-dancing, all-singing comedic troupe provide light relief. For the sake of keeping tedium to a minimum, the Patron insists on having them perform together, as a bizarre collage. Cuts and alterations are made; hands are wrung, tears are shed. And after the interval (the ‘real’ interval), we’re presented with the result. Quite predictably, it’s a hot mess. If Donizetti and Wagner had ever taken LSD together and collaborated badly the results would have been comparable.
  • The bits sung by Ariadne – the serious bits – are richly finished late-Romantic set pieces, Strauss on his best behaviour. The comic troupe’s leading lady, Zerbinetta, interrupts Ariadne a few times in mock improvisation-cum-Italian coloratura aria. I’m not sure how much Strauss meant this to be to played for laughs, but it seems a little vulgar. When executed brilliantly – as Jane Archibald does in this production, her voice slight but deft – the vulgarity is basically enjoyable as an athletic spectacle.
  • Though many in the audience will leave hopelessly mystified, Strauss actually achieves something quite sneaky. The point being made – artists depend on patrons who wield the power to humiliate these artists on whim and to demean their work – is also thrown back on us: by forcing the real (e.g. Covent Garden) audience into the role of spectator, so far putatively occupied by the tasteless Patron who commissioned the evening’s entertainment, we are made to collude. I hazard that the reason the wealthy Patron never appears onstage is that the he is supposed to be us, the audience. After all, during the performance of the Opera the audience literally occupies the space the Patron would be in. When I write that Zerbinetta’s music seems vulgar, I’m reminded that ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin ‘vulgus’, meaning ‘the common people’.
  • The entrance of the Diva in the prologue was undiluted camp: she sails on stage in a jacket-skirt-hat ensemble of a singularly aggressive shade of fuchsia. It was excessive, marvellously so, and I’m sorry its runway presentation lasted for only a few seconds, like Ariadne’s high B-flats.
  • Speaking of which, Karita Mattila (the Diva/Ariadne) is the unparalleled glory of this production. She basks in the majestic hauteur of the role, and probably wasn’t even acting. Her voice – oh, her voice! It’s simply a Rolls-Royce of a soprano: rich, vast, astonishingly plush from top to bottom. The aforementioned B-flats in ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ thrilled me physically. I realise I’m gushing; in the true spirit of diva worship, I find this diva can do no wrong. I feel both desire for this voice, and a certain envy. I wish I could possess that sonority, produce it myself. I can (I do) lip-sync to the memory of it, but this is just teasing myself. I can’t express myself with Matilla’s voice, and feel a similar inadequacy to express my uncertain and protean feelings about this performance in this review.
  • I resented Pappano’s conducting for not distending Ariadne’s phrases, for not allowing Karita Mattila greater relish of the lines ‘Dies lastende Leben / Du nimm es von mir.’ I wonder if she felt undermined; perhaps I’m hoping for parallels between Karita Mattila and her onstage role as the Diva.
  • Ariadne is supposed to be stranded on a rock, having been abandoned by her lover, Theseus. Her big arias are essentially operatic torch songs; she sings of love and loss. Although historically an antecedent, this situation conjured thoughts of Judy Garland singing ‘The Man That Got Away’, Patsy Cline singing ‘Crazy’, and Dolly Parton singing ‘I Will Always Love You’. Are these prisms inappropriate? The association with Judy Garland seems most apt; her voice sustained her career even as she crashed towards unqualified ruin. Here is the majestic Diva, contractually obliged to sing in unbearable circumstances. I fantasise that the Diva character is clawing desperately, tragically at the latter half of a dimming career, her dignity frayed. In her prime she would have torn up that rotten contract and stormed out, head high and scarf billowing. Now she’s forced to undergo a public humiliation, the high cost of retaining a public of any kind.
  • Why is the coupling of glamour and abjection so horrifying and delicious a spectacle? What tickles us about it is what tickles some about (for instance) Mildred Pierce or RuPaul’s Drag Race, the unblushing artefacts of camp. (What are the prerequisites for the status of gay icon?)
  • I haven’t even mentioned that the Composer is ‘male’, but sung by a mezzo-soprano (marvellously, by Ruxandra Donose). Why would Strauss do this? Isn’t it more obvious (more boring) to cast the Composer with a male voice? The ambiguous effect: for us, the Composer is a drag role; no shoulder pads or dinner jacket could possibly disguise a female singing voice, for voices always betray their bodies. But no other character sees the composer as dragged up, which prises apart the space between theatre and audience, a space we’re supposed to recognise as artifice.
  • I’m tempted to make the Freudian point about the Composer being forced to cut his work as cipher for castration anxiety (the Composer is a mezzo role – is this a ‘castrated’ voice?). But I’ll leave it at a mention.
  • Already forced to compromise his lofty Wagnerian aesthetic ideals, the Composer’s humiliation is compounded by being deprived an authoritative (male) voice. Strauss may have worshipped the female voice (how proto queer of him), but stripping a traditionally megalomaniacal figure of any provisional claim to seriousness or authority is a deliberate ‘castration’, the first of many invitations to revel in the humiliation of a character, to delight in artifice. If theatrical artifice = camp, Ariadne auf Naxos has some claim to be the campiest opera in the repertoire.
  • What endears me to Ariadne auf Naxos, its oddness notwithstanding, is that it refuses to take opera seriously on its own terms, while remaining in parts enjoyable as opera. It’s an instance of often beautifully written music but calculated to undermine the enterprise of writing beautiful music. Strauss entreats us to enjoy ourselves as he lacerates us for doing so; it makes the pleasure a bit illicit. What could be queerer than that?


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