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Ariadne – Celina Lindsley; Theseus – Norman Phillips; Minotaur – Richard Novak
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra
Vaclav Neumann – conductor
Supraphon SU 3524 – 2 631 (one disc)

Sung in French; Recorded in 1987; TPT: 43'44

Having heard live performances of The Greek Passion andJulietta by Welsh National Opera and Opera North respectively, I was unprepared for the compact, controlled delight that is Ariane. The two larger works impressed me by their dramatic flow and evocation of atmosphere but in the end, as with so much of Martinu's output, there was something intangible and uneven about the musical argument so that the effect on the listener was necessarily dissipated. Martinu wrote Ariane in Switzerland as a 'rest from work on this major opera [The Greek Passion] which is costing me a lot of effort' (Letter June 3rd 1958). He wrote at a tremendous pace and finished the opera in a month: he died of cancer a year later. The first performance of Ariane took place in Gelsenkirchen in 1961.

For the libretto of Ariane he returned to the dream world of Georges Neveux, a personal friend and symbolist dramatist who had furnished him with the play on which Julietta had been based. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur is clearly expounded, but a skein of ambiguous implications is superimposed onto the plot. For example, when Theseus finally confronts the Minotaur, he is astounded to see a mirror image of himself standing before him. Lines hang in the air not demanding an answer and certainly not getting one: why does Ariadne forbid the stranger (Theseus) to touch the tree under which she is standing, and then never mention it again? Could it be a reference to the Garden of Eden? Possibly. It's all very intriguing in a typically Gallic intellectual way.

The performances on this recording are uniformly excellent...Heartily recommended.

Martinu casts his music in a Prologue and Three Scenes. To start with, a Guard gains news of Theseus' imminent arrival by sea through conversation with a seagull (sic). Framing his recitative-like soliloquy are two statements of Sinfonia 1, a short, poised, neo-classical number which could have come straight from Stravinsky's Pulcinella. Its charming main idea has been in my head for days – the first time I have ever been able to hum back a tune by Martinu ! Scene One finds the Seven Youths who have come to slay the Minotaur at Knossos seeking advice from an Old Man (inevitably!). Later one of them, Theseus, detaches himself from the party and meets Ariadne, is not put off by her enigmatic conversation and before you know it, is preparing to wed her. The music varies from neutral quasi-monodic writing to passionate melodious shapes at emotional moments. Ariadne's line occasionally rises up into the stratosphere – Celina Lindsley evidently relishes the challenge and sings with a luminous tone throughout the opera. Although the use of leitmotifs is in no way thoroughgoing, the recurring patterns are really memorable and act as pillars to support the musical edifice.

Sinfonia 2 – a ternary form piece – ushers in Scene 2 in which the Minotaur kills one of the youths and is in turn killed by Theseus. Martinu lavishes great care on the minor characters: the six youths sing a capella a song of their homeland which in turn becomes an accompaniment to the duet between Theseus and Ariadne; later the youths enunciate a melismatic 'oh' just before the demise of the Minotaur. The final scene is mostly concerned with Ariadne's lament at the departure of her beloved Theseus. Apart from being a very moving piece in its own right, it is also a satisfying summation of the main musical ideas of the whole opera. The cry of an abandoned woman is a commonplace in opera (e.g. Monteverdi's Ariadne, Purcell's Dido, Puccini's Butterfly) but this aria is the equal of any of those. I am surprised it is not extracted and sung by itself more often.

The performances on this recording are uniformly excellent. Mention has been made of the name role but sterling support is given by the American baritone Norman Phillips as Theseus and the Czech bass Richard Novak as the Minotaur. The orchestra plays with commendable sensitivity under the Neumann's experienced baton. The recording is clear, if a little dry, and was made way back in 1987. Heartily recommended.

Alisdair Jamieson  

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