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Deeply affecting

Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos' in Cardiff
reviewed by REX HARLEY

 

When I was young man I hated opera with a vengeance which was irrational, yet hid itself under a veneer of logic. And I hated it on principle. The principle was simple: music was a pure, and abstract, art form; theatre was a pure, and concrete, art form; opera was a bastard creation born of two irreconcilable opposites. The result was bad music and bad theatre.

As evidence I would point to the absurdity of a character singing at length, and loudly, about how she was dying of consumption. At the heart of my objections, then, was the unreality of opera. By implication, I must have considered 'straight theatre' as something inherently real; an attitude which now strikes me as bizarre. Theatre is never real, even which it approximates to reality, let alone when it is Expressionist, or Absurd, or Tragic. Indeed the Tragic and operatic use of the chorus is directly comparable.

But something had got under my skin and offended the young pedant in me. It's taken a long time for me to be convinced otherwise too, and I still have difficulty with two composers most opera buffs would regard as de rigeur -- Verdi, and Wagner -- each in their very different way. Conversely, the composer who first made me question my doctrinaire views was Richard Strauss, first by my listening to the music on recordings, and then going to see the operas themselves.

A scene from the Welsh National Opera 2004 production of Richard Strauss's 'Ariadne', showing (front stage, from the left) Janice Watson (Ariadne) and Katarzyna Dondalska (Zerbinetta). Photo © 2004 Clive Barda
A scene from the Welsh National Opera 2004 production of Richard Strauss's 'Ariadne', showing (front stage, from the left) Janice Watson (Ariadne) and Katarzyna Dondalska (Zerbinetta). Photo © 2004 Clive Barda

It was the final scene of Salome which was the break-through: that passionate, cruel, obsessive monologue as Salome sings to the head of John the Baptist. It both thrilled and chilled me, not merely because of the intimate, verbal exploration of her 'love', but the way the music drew me, by its own beauty and violence, right into character and action. Effectively, Strauss's music took me, psychologically, somewhere I would otherwise have resisted being taken.

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Copyright © 5 October 2004 Rex Harley, Cardiff UK

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