Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis

Struggling with the score of The Greek Passion,
Martinů seems to have turned to the tale of Ariadne and
Theseus for light relief from the magic realism of what would be his last
opera — a letter of June 1958 to his family explains that he was
‘taking a rest’ from the larger work — and he completed
the 40-minute opera in just one month. The composer prepared the libretto
fromLe voyage de Thésée by the French surrealist poet
Georges Neveux — who was also the librettist of Martinů’s
Julietta. Neveux added a dream-like ambiguity to the myth, with
Ariane possibly in love with the Minotaur, who is representative of
Thésée’s ‘other self’.

The libretto is full of unanswered, probably unanswerable, questions,
and ambiguous suggestions. When Thésée calls for the Minotaure,
an echo responds calling for ‘the other Thésée … the
Thésée that was’ to come to his aid. When the
mirror-image Minotaure appears, he challenges
Thésée: ‘Who do you think I should look like? … Who
dares to aim his blow at himself and die by his own hand?’
Ariane, regarding the dead beast, tells Thésée, ‘I
knew he looked like you’. Who does Thésée kill?

Gaitanou takes this essentially unfathomable melange of divination and
doppelgängers and grounds it in the Salle Wagram Ballroom in
Paris which was, in the mid-1960s, an important recording venue, taking as
her prompt Martinů’s admiration for and fascination with Maria
Callas whom the composer hoped would perform the title role. (It was not to
be, which may have been fortunate given the celebrity soprano’s vocal
fragility at this time.)

The Salle was the home of Pathé-Marconi/EMI and designer Simon
Corder decorates the studio with tape reels and microphones of the era,
drawing inspiration from photographs (specifically those by Robert Doisneau
and Sabine Weiss) of Callas recording Carmen at the Salle Wagram
in 1964. The re-imagined recording session morphs the youths of Athens and
Thésée’s companions into international stars and recording
engineers, whose own entanglements and everyday routines form a background
for the enacted recording of Martinů’s opera. In this way
Gaitanou both taps into Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos and
continues the tradition of exploring the ‘meaning’ of our own
lives through the re-telling of Greek myth.

Martinů’s score employs a lyrical idiom which roves from a
neutral monadic idiom to the charm of Poulenc, to passionate emotional
climaxes, and here it showcased some fine singing from the cast of young
singers whose arias and brief snatches of recitative did a fine dual job of
despatching the story swiftly and focusing on the characters’

Both baritone Josep-Ramon Olivé as Thésée and bass Milan
Siljanov as the Minotaure exhibited a strong dramatic weight. ‘In
recording’, Olivé gave a noble account of the role,
characterised by emotional restraint and dignified French declamation. His
tone was full and his phrasing finely chiselled. Siljanov combines the heft
of a bass with the richness of a baritone, and he gave a characterful
portrayal, doubling also as the Old Man. Tenor Dominick Felix produced an
urgent, attractive tone as Bouroun, who, impatient with
Thésée’s distractedness, resolves to kills the Minotaure
himself, with fatal consequences. The role of the Watchman who announces
the arrival of Thésée in Knossos was taken by John Findon, who
delivered his recitative-like soliloquy stylishly.

The central role of Ariane is a substantial coloratura part and the
eponymous heroine’s bravura lament upon the departure of
Thésée occupies the last quarter of the opera — think
Monteverdi’s Arianne or Purcell’s Dido. Sweet of tone, and just
about able to negotiate the virtuosic, and stratospheric, demands,
Said’s soprano is, alas, far too light, and lacks both the cream and
weight, to carry the emotional weight of the role. Neveux’s simple
French was clearly enunciated but the nobility or profundity of
Martinů’s musical language was not fully tapped, though Said
worked hard at the phrasing and crafted some beautiful trailing

The score recalls Stravinsky in chirpy neo-baroque mode —
Pulcinella, premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1920 comes
strongly to mind — but Martinů also punctuates Ariane
with three fairly lengthy Sinfonias, à la Monteverdi’s
Orfeo, and the GSMD Orchestra, conducted by Timothy
Redmond, played them with crisp punchiness, the rhythms sharply defined and
the woodwind colours striking.

The partnering work, Alexandre bis (translated as
‘Alexander Twice’ in English and ‘Dvakrát
Alexandr’ in Czech) was composed in 1937 to an original libretto
written in French by André Wurmser. It’s a variation on
Così fan tutte, with a surreal twist.

Alexandre decides to test the fidelity of his wife, Armande, by shaving
off his beard and posing as his cousin visiting from out of town. Armande
is in fact virtuous: for years she has fended off persistent admirers. Now,
however, she submits — even though she recognizes her husband in his
deception. Just as Ariane cannot distinguish between Thésée and
the Minotaur, so Alexandre is her husband but not her husband. We’re
back in a Midsummer Night’s Dream-like fissure between
delusion and reality. Armande has betrayed her husband by loving her
husband, and had fun; from now on she will be unfaithful, and so she
succumbs to the urges of her serial admirer, Oscar. The maid Philomène
and a singing portrait imitate Mozart’s Despina and Don Alfonso by
commenting on, and interfering in, the action. Wurmser’s moral,
unlike Da Ponte’s, turns its censure on the men: ‘Don’t
knowingly lead your wife into temptation, for the devil never sleeps, and
there are never two without three.’ We’re all weak so
don’t take the risk. This is, after all, as the subtitle tell us,
‘The Tragedy of a Man who had his Beard Cut’.

The opera is characterised by bizarre juxtapositions and non sequiturs
— of the kind that the surrealists believed allowed the unconscious
to express truth. Gaitanou and Corder play up the comic absurdity by
setting the work in a pre-WW2 bourgeois salon inspired by the roof garden
of a Champs-Élysées apartment which was designed by Le Corbusier
in 1930, and decorated by Salvador Dali, for the eccentric
multi-millionaire art collector Charles de Beistegui.

Above a carpet of grass, topiary vegetation is sculpted alongside a
rococo fireplace and mirror, peacock fireguard, white garden seating and a
parrot on a decorative stand. The outside-inside salon is placed within
curving white walls beyond which an azure blue sky glows above
pedestal-mounted, gleaming bronzed models of L’Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur and Notre-Dame.

The zany costumes of Cordelia Chisholm and Victoria Newlyn’s
mad-cap but expertly co-ordinated choreography — it’s all
careering bicycles and tutu-clad dancing devils — add to the lunacy:
by the time we get to Armande’s lurid dream sequence we’re not
sure what’s real and what’s wished-for fantasy.

Martinů alternates spoken dialogue with sung numbers in the
opera buffa tradition, and the cast were fully committed to the
absurdity and physical farce without making vocal sacrifices. Olivé
again impressed as Alexandre, but ditched Thésée’s mythic
solemnity for hamminess worthy of Feydeau. Martinů had asked Wurmser
for a libretto including a singing cat, but accepted the writer’s
compromise of a singing portrait which acts as a narrator to a tale of
bourgeois infidelity. Once again, Siljanov was vigorous of voice,
delighting in the monologues which begin with humour and veer towards
hysterical aphoristic moralising. He inhabited this bizarre role with

As Armande, soprano Elizabeth Karani was more dramatically restrained,
but sang with a clean and attractive soprano. Bianca Andrew sparkled as the
maid, Philomène, lamenting in her first aria that she is condemned to
a life ‘cleaning house in a comic opera’. Andrew’s
mezzo-soprano is warm and agile. Tenor John Findon impressed as the
persistently flirtatious fop, Oscar.

Redmond summoned plenty of fizz from the pit too, though it was the
strings who shone this time with the woodwind sometimes challenged by the
score’s demands. That said, the instrumental playing during the
evening was some of the best I have heard from the young GSMD players and
would be a credit to any professional ensemble.

Alexandre was intended by the Parisian-resident Martinů
for performance at the Paris World Exhibition of 1937. In the event it was
not premiered until 18 February 1964 at the Mannheim Opera House, conducted
by Georg Calder. The first performance of Ariane took place
posthumously, in 1961, two years after Martinů’s death, at the
Musiktheater im Revier in Gelsenkirchen,
Germany. The latter opera actually owed its UK premiere to the GSMD, when
it was performed as part of a ‘Martinů festival’ at the
Barbican in 2009, in a staging by Stephen Medcalf, conducted by Clive

This double bill showed us how grateful we should be to our
Conservatoires for taking risks and delivering operatic rarities with such
wit and panache.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production details:

Ariane :
Ariane — Nicola Said, Thésée — Josep-Ramon
Olivém, Le Minotaure — Milan Siljanov, Bouroun — Dominick
Felix, 1er garcon — Robin Horgan, 2ème
garcon — Bertie Watson, 3ème garcon — James
Liu, 4 ème garçon — Laurence Williams,
5ème garcon — Jack Lawrence-Jones.

Alexandre bis :

Philomène — Bianca Andrew, Le portrait — Milan
Siljanov, Alexandre — Josep-Ramon Olivé, Armande —
Elizabeth Karani, Oscar — John Findon, Dancing Devils — Robin
Horgan, Jack Lawrence-Jones, Bertie Watson, Laurence Williams.

Director — Rodula Gaitanou, Conductor — Timothy
Redmond, Set and lighting designer — Simon Corder, costume designer
— Cordelia Chisholm, choreographer Victoria Newlyn, Orchestra of the
Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Tuesday 31st May 2015, Silk
Street Theatre, GSMD, London.

Click here for a podcast about this production.

image_description=Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt]
product_title=Bohuslav Martinů’s Ariane and Alexandre bis
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Ariadne by John William Waterhouse (1898) [Source: WikiArt]