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Thin opera star earns light praise

Replacing Deborah Voigt in 'Ariadne auf Naxos,' German Anne Schwanewilms opens to a warm house but starkly mixed reviews.

June 25, 2004|Robert Barr | Associated Press

LONDON — "Ariadne auf Naxos" has returned to the Royal Opera House on a wave of hype about a little black dress and a generously proportioned soprano.

Critics writing in Thursday newspapers generally cheered the new revival of the Richard Strauss opera, though some had doubts about the performance of Anne Schwanewilms. The German soprano inherited the title role after the Royal Opera shocked the music world by ditching the American Deborah Voigt, who was judged too large to fit into the small evening dress the producer required.

"Ariadne," fittingly, is about the backstage strife leading up to an opera performance.

The audience at Tuesday night's premiere, obviously remembering the famous contretemps of March, gave Schwanewilms a warm reception.

"Anne Schwanewilms, a Strauss regular, clear of voice, tall, thin was visibly moved by the house's applause. Yet this happy ending comes with a hitch, for Schwanewilms, unfortunately, shares the opera with ladies much feistier in voice and presence," Geoffrey Brown wrote in The (London) Times.

"This is one of those awkward evenings that simply doesn't cohere and Schwanewilms, sadly, is one of its drawbacks," Tim Ashley wrote in The Guardian.

"She made a sensational U.K. debut as Ariadne in concert at the Barbican four years ago, and anyone who heard that remarkable performance cannot fail to be struck by her subsequent decline," Ashley wrote.

He laid some of the blame on Christof Loy's "ill-focused" 2002 production. "It bears out the common criticism that the work lacks unity by curiously making the opera which the characters perform different from the one we have watched them prepare," Ashley wrote.

But the Financial Times' critic, Richard Fairman, had nothing but praise for Schwanewilms.

"Anne Schwanewilms made an Ariadne slender of body and voice, her singing often classically beautiful, if sometimes raw round the edges. The role fit her like a glove," Fairman wrote.

Critics were kinder to other performers, including American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who sang the role of the composer, and German soprano Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta.

In the music world, where many singers fight weight problems, it was considered astounding that Covent Garden would give up the superstar Voigt in favor of the relatively unknown Schwanewilms.

Voigt, who called the decision "hurtful," has battled a weight problem for much of her life. While she slimmed noticeably in the mid-1990s, the pounds returned after the diet drug Fen-Phen was withdrawn from the market in 1997.

"I would give my right arm -- well, maybe not my right arm -- but I'd give something pretty significant to not have this issue be a part of my life," Voigt told the Associated Press soon after she was cut from the production.

"But, then again, I look at my life and I think, 'If this is your greatest burden to bear thus far, you're doing pretty well.' "

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