A chance to see the young Edita Gruberova’s near legendary portrayal of Zerbinetta would be reason enough to watch the 1978 Vienna recording of Ariadne auf Naxos but, as it happens, there’s much more. For a start the cast includes Gundula Janowitz, Walter Berry, René Kollo and Trudeliese Schmidt plus Karl Böhm, a man who worked closely with Strauss, is conducting.
The recording is a studio shot, lip synched, film based on Filippo Sanjust’s production at the Vienna State Opera. It’s utterly literal and there’s nothing added or taken away to/from Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s original idea. Also, John Vernon filmed it in a rather stagey way with a lot of mugging the camera, though nowhere near as archly as tends to be the case in Ponnelle’s work. He also gets very filmic in certain sequences with nymphs fading in and out of picture as if figments of Ariadne’s imagination. It’s not terribly exciting visually.
So, it really comes down to the performances. Let’s start with Gruberova. Her Zerbinetta is extremely well sung with near miraculous control, beauty of tone and breathtaking coloratura. But, and it’s a big but, she’s just so wholesome. In Grossmachtige Prinzessin she might be singing about ice-cream flavours rather than lovers and one gets the impression that her idea of surrendering to a man involves letting him hold her hand at the cinema. It’s not just that that it’s not slutty enough, it also means the element of world weariness that is key to Zerbinetta is missing. One can see why this portrayal was famous in its time but it now feels very old fashioned.
Gundula Janowitz is a terrific Ariadne. She sings with great beauty and has just enough vulnerability to engage us. She also looks the part. René Kollo plays Bacchus in an archetypal Heldentenor manner. His voice rings like a bell and he looks the part. Very fine. Trudeliese Schmidt gives an excellent performance in both the singing and acting components, more than adequately portraying the impetuous and unstable nature of the Komponist. Some though might prefer a darker toned mezzo to Schidt’s bright, sopranos, tone. The best acting comes from Walter Berry as the Musiklehrer. He’s very convincing sounding truly world weary without ever quite slipping over into cynical. Zerbinetta’s troupe prance about in a rather dated fashion but there’s some fine singing from the nymphs.
Karl Böhm’s interpretation is quite interesting and also, perhaps, a little old fashioned in its way. Sprightly in places, he has a tendency to slow things down almost to the point where the rhythmic vitality of the score seems in danger of being lost. The Vienna Philharmonic mostly sound great though the string tone during the overture seems a bit off. This may be the recording and it doesn’t persist.
The picture is 4:3 aspect ratio and pretty decent for the time with a slight film stock soft focus. The stereo sound is typical of analogue recordings of the period; i.e. pretty good. The DTS track is synthesized from stereo using DGG’s ANSII process but sounds OK too. The only extras on the disk are trailers for other DGG recordings. The booklet has a track listing, synopsis and a short essay. Subtitle options are German, English, French, Spanish and Chinese.