In 2017 I went back to Nancy and saw David Hermann’s staging of the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This is an opera I have seen many times before, for instance in Koblenz (as mentioned in my post Operas in Koblenz) and in two different productions in Frankfurt, one by Peter Mussbach from the 1990s and one by Brigitte Fassbaender from 2013.
This opera starts with a prologue in the house of “the richest man in Vienna”, who has commissioned a new opera from a promising young composer for the entertainment of his distinguished dinner guests. He has also engaged an Italian musical comedy team and a fireworks display to begin in the garden at nine o’clock precisely. This “richest man” never appears in person, but his orders are relayed by his imperious majordomo (Haushofmeister in German), who informs the composer and performers that because time is short, the tragic German opera and the funny Italian musical must be performed simultaneously, and it’s up to them to work out how to do this.
The composer is a ‘trouser role’ in which a woman, a mezzo-soprano, plays the part of a young man. But in David Hermann’s staging in Nancy she wears high heels in the prologue, suggesting that she might be a female composer this time — which doesn’t prevent her from being beguiled by the Italian soprano Zerbinetta, as the text demands.
A unique feature of this staging is that it begins half an hour before show time in the gorgeous upper lobby of the Nancy opera house, where we see the distinguished dinner guests being served by the majordomo (played by actor Volker Muthmann) in a slow-motion pantomime dinner scene.
They are being serenaded by two violinists from the opera orchestra. This is a brilliant idea because exactly this scene is mentioned but not shown in the prologue, when the composer rushes in and demands to have a rehearsal with the violinists, only to be told that they are not available because they are upstairs playing for the dinner guests.
The same slow-motion pantomime dinner scene is continued during the intermission between the prologue and the actual opera. After the intermission the distinguished guests take their seats in one of the boxes to the left of the stage to watch the opera. At the end, they appear on the stage, led by the majordomo. One of the women takes a selfie of herself with the tenor, who stalks off in disgust, and the majordomo takes a photo of the whole group with his smartphone.
In any new production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I’m always curious to see how (if at all) the composer will be brought into the actual opera, where he/she is actually not intended to appear. In the Nancy production, David Hermann has created a playful little scene in which the composer comes in barefoot (no more high heels) while Zerbinetta is singing her big aria. Zerbinetta is sitting on a swing, so the composer pushes the swing a few times to send her swinging out over the orchestra pit (hopefully the soprano Beate Ritter isn’t afraid of heights). After the aria the composer notes down a few bars of music which Zerbinetta obligingly sight-reads. Then Zerbinetta teases the composer by grabbing the score and waving it around a bit before giving it back.
I should explain that the actual opera takes place on a desert island — desert in the sense of deserted, not dry and sandy. In fact the island in the Nancy production is covered with lush vegetation and has, as a unique feature, a genuine mud-puddle.
Here are some of the singers (and the conductor) bowing at the end of the performance:
The lady in the red dress is Beate Ritter (Zerbinetta). On her right is Andrea Hill (the composer) and on her left is the conductor, Rani Calderon, who is also the music director of the National Opera of Lorraine. To his left are Michael König (Bacchus) and Amber Wagner (Ariadne), both of whom have sung at the Frankfurt Opera on occasion.
Here are some more cast members who didn’t fit in to my first photo. Note that Ariadne’s three companions, Naide, Dryade and Echo, are not dressed as immaculate goddesses this time, but as rough-and-tumble nature girls who don’t mind getting splashed with mud from the mud-puddle and don’t seem shocked (or even surprised) when their new Italian boyfriends are magically transformed into pigs.
Although the fireworks display was not shown on the stage this time (Peter Mussbach showed it in Frankfurt in the form of a splotchy old black-and-white film), we did see something very similar when we left the opera house and stepped out onto the Place Stanislaus in Nancy, where they were “rehearsing” an elaborate sound-and-light show to be held there the following Saturday, involving colorful moving projections on the classical facades on all four sides of the square.
In this photo, the text on the city hall says “Rehearsal underway. See you Saturday June 17 at 22:45.”
Watch the teaser for Ariadne auf Naxos in Nancy.
Address of the opera house: 4, Place Stanislas, 54000 Nancy
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
Historic postcard views of the Nancy Opera on Carthalia.
My photos in this post are from 2017. I revised the text in 2018 and 2022.
See also: Crash of an Airbus at the Opera.