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A heroine bright and light
(Filed: 25/06/2004)

Rupert Christiansen reviews Ariadne auf Naxos by the Royal Opera, A Midsummer Night's Dream by ENO and Die Meistersinger by Zurich Opera

Need to get away

A silly story about the sacking of the overweight American soprano Deborah Voigt has coloured attitudes to the Royal Opera's revival of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

It's a lot of fuss about nothing, in my opinion, and her replacement, Anne Schwanewilms, certainly made a convincingly slim and elegant Ariadne.

Perhaps she doesn't command Voigt's vocal opulence - there was some quavering intonation and resinous grit in her voice, as well as a nasty accident at the climax of "Es gibt ein Reich" – but Schwanewilms is a highly intelligent musician, who thinks about what she is singing. And today, that's a rare quality.

Diana Damrau's breezy Zerbinetta glittered prettily enough but didn't move me; Susan Graham's dashingly sung Composer was superficially characterised; Grant Doyle didn't find an honest legato for Harlequin's lied; Richard Margison's Bacchus was only standard issue.

Among the rest of the cast, Christine Rice's ardently sung Dryad excelled. That a heavily pregnant Miss Rice was playing a nymph dressed in a man's suit didn't seem to matter as much as it should.

Sir Colin Davis conducted lovingly, and even managed to make sense of the prolix final scene. After a rough start, the orchestra played beautifully. Christof Loy's production continues to look magnificent, and the action (rehearsed by John Fulljames) is well handled. I just wish I could feel that the spectacular scene changes and mixed-period updating meant anything.

English National Opera brings its dodgy first season in the renovated Coliseum to a close with a nice revival of Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, hugely enjoyed by the audience.

I was disappointed in Robin Blaze's pallid Oberon and Sarah Tynan's excessively tarty Titania, but there were good teams of mechanicals and lovers, with outstanding contributions from Peter Rose (Bottom), Graeme Danby (Quince), and Linda Richardson (Helena).

A further pleasure of the evening was the sweet yet spirited singing of Trinity Boys' Choir. Paul Daniel conducted without much finesse, but Robert Carsen's staging has bags of charm and inventiveness.

After its triumphant «Tannhäuser» here last year, Zurich Opera returned to the Festival Hall for the even bigger Wagnerian challenge of «Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg».

There was no disappointment: this was a joyful midsummer performance that exemplified the virtues of a genuine ensemble - all the small roles were beautifully etched, the chorus raised the roof and the orchestra played with a wonderfully mellow and integrated sound which put one in mind of an immaculately engineered BMW.

Holding everything together with great authority was the once-reviled Franz Welser-Möst, whose conducting combined broad-breathed ease with a crystal-clear articulation of the counterpoint.

Matti Salminen's lordly Pogner, Michael Volle's refreshingly uncaricatured Beckmesser, and Christoph Strehl's exuberant David were truly first-class, and although the other principals had their failings - Josť van Dam made a rather dourly subdued Sachs, Petra-Maria Schnitzer was an acidulous Eva and Peter Seiffert's Walther bleated the Prize Song - these were subsumed in the overall radiance of this happy occasion.

  • Royal Opera: 020 7304 4000; ENO: 020 7632 8300
  • 19 September 2002: 'I'm still surprised by music' [interview with Sir Colin Davis]

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