Ariadne auf Naxos opens with an extended backstage prologue, in which cast changes are imposed at short notice by unseen authorities. The history the Royal Opera’s current production seems to be a case of life imitating art; Deborah Voigt was initially booked for the title role but was then sacked because she was too large for the costume. She finally appears in this, the third revival having lost around ten stone through a gastric bypass procedure. Celebrity stomach surgery is currently hot news in the UK, with the daytime TV presenter Fern Britton recently at the centre of a tabloid hypocrisy witch hunt for secretly having her stomach ‘stapled’ while advocating more traditional weight loss regimes to her viewers. No surprise, then that Deborah Voigt has also come under tabloid scrutiny (although slightly more surprise that it is deemed worthy of a front page slot in the Metro, London’s freebie commuter celebrity gossip rag). In fairness, though, Voigt has been very open about the whole affair. It was she who broke the news of her having been dropped from the production, and she has given numerous interviews on the subject since (including this one) and has even appeared in a YouTube self parody, in which she confronts the black cocktail dress that was the initial source of her woes.
But something doesn’t add up. Peter Katona, the casting director who made the decision to sack Voigt from the first production, was adamant that she would not look right in the dress that he had planned for the part. The opera has a 1930s setting, but could hardly be described as revolving around the styling of this single dress. Voigt does indeed look more agile in her now less-than-Wagnerian frame, but the amount of movement required is minimal and could surely be tackled by an overweight singer, even one weighing twenty five stone.
Whatever their reasons, the management have finally come round to the right choice for the part. It took Voigt the first ten minutes or so to settle her voice into the role, but after that she was pure Strauss. She still has the projection and support of a singer of her earlier frame, though a slight brittle edge is now apparent. Most importantly though, she has the star quality needed for the final scene, and her closing duets with Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus carry the evening.
The ravishing bitter-sweet closing scene is Strauss’ party piece as far as opera is concerned, and I couldn’t help the feeling that, in the case of Ariadne, it is the work’s single redeeming feature. The story is ludicrous, even in opera terms (it is about a pantomime troupe invading the performance of a classical tragedy), and the characters are stubbornly two dimensional (perhaps that’s why Voigt had to slim down to fit the role). But it all trundles on for a few hours until it is time for the grand closing scene. Sadly, the performance took a similar approach, with competent but uncommitted playing up until the closing numbers. Mark Elder conducts with a firm hand, and emotions are never allowed to boil over. Perhaps he was just trying to maintain some order in this bizarrely incoherent score, but more Staussian passion would have been welcome throughout, not just in the send-you-home music.