Ariadne auf Naxos might seem a perverse sort of opera to choose to produce in these cash-strapped credit-crunch times. The plot turns on the whim of a super-rich patron for whom a firework display is of as much consequence as a lasting work of art. This patron has commissioned two works to entertain his guests of an evening prior to a grand pyrotechnic display; one is a low burlesque featuring characters from the traditional commedia dell'arte, the other a serious opera about Ariadne abandoned on the island of Naxos by her unfaithful lover Theseus. The Ariadne music is supposedly the work of a young composer setting out on his career who is shortly going to find out that however high-minded or idealistic a composer may be, in the world of opera one is continually at the mercy of patrons and audiences who might not respect the composer's desires and wishes. The opera is in two parts; a prologue set behind the scenes of the production followed by the Opera itself. In order to make sure everything finishes in time for the fireworks the patron (who is never seen and speaks through the mouth of his Major-Domo, here admirably played with impeccable German spoken dialogue by Eric Roberts) orders both pieces to be performed simultaneously and commands the Composer to adjust his score accordingly to allow for the harlequinade. What we end up with is an extraordinary mash of slapstick comedy with music of an almost transcendental ecstasy. This strange melange offers a world of opportunity to the operatic producers and Directors Neil Armfield and Denni Sayers gave us a production that milked both these elements to the full.
The Prologue is a mini back-stage riot, with people going about their business at full pelt. There are queeny fits from the leading man and lady, there is an inordinate amount of flirting and larking about by all concerned, and George Newton-Fitzgerald as the wig maker camps things up as much as possible. Indeed, at times there was too much going on to enjoy it all, especially if you were trying to take in the surtitles as well given the fast pace of the words. Imelda Drumm played the Composer extremely well. Although she spends a relatively short time on stage Strauss has given the role some of his most difficult music. Drumm captured the high-mindedness of the young man perfectly, even if sometimes her male swaggering did remind one a bit of Bob from Blackadder. Given that the production was ostensibly set in modern times (the wig maker is often on his mobile phone) might it be worth letting the role be played as a female composer? While quite unusual in Strauss's day, good female composer abound these days! The Music Master (Robert Poulton) breaks the news to the Composer and we enjoy seeing the poor young man's illusions crash to the floor.
The Opera features a score of marvellous opulence, made all the more remarkable by Strauss's tiny orchestra of just 37 players, though he uses that Viennese staple the harmonium quite extensively, and also the piano, especially for the "low" music of the harlequinade. The Orchestra of WNO under Lothar Koenigs played beautifully; quite frequently Strauss reduces his orchestration even further, so that we were treated to some exquisite string chamber music (at times hinting towards the String Sextet from his operatic masterpiece Capriccio). Special mention should be made of the principal viola player Philip Heyman who made his instrument sing. The three Nymphs who open the Opera proper, Naiad, Dryad and Echo, have an ensemble of exquisite beauty (who else but Strauss could write music of such luminosity for three equal voices? Wagner, perhaps; his influence is felt everywhere throughout) though the staging does mean they end up standing about quite a lot. My main criticism of this part of the work is that the Opera production isn't visually terribly compelling, though the set was very beautiful in its simplicity. Maybe this was entirely deliberate so that it contrasted totally with the high jinks of the comedy troupe. This extraordinary outfit proved to be a total riot. Inspired quite obviously by the comedy styles of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges they danced and fell about with great facility and wit (much to the annoyance of Ariadne who they are trying to cheer up). The role that makes or breaks the opera is that of Zerbinetta, the coquettish member of the comedy troupe who has one of the most difficult coloratura roles in the repertoire. Gillian Keith was absolutely splendid in the role, tackling the Everest-like demands of her parts with consumate ease as well as acting and dancing divinely. It was impossible not to like. Orla Boylan as Ariadne brought a glorious creamy tone to the part and Ricardo Tamura as Bacchus proved an excellent heldentenor, having to sing a huge part without really any time to warm up to it (Strauss was never one to let his singers have an easy ride). In all, this was a great evening at the opera, even though we, as the audience, were the ultimate patron and the recipient of Strauss's sarcastic dig that however much we say we want and appreciate high art, there is always the lure of fireworks to bring us down to earth.
This review was from the Birmingham leg of the tour
When it first appeared in 2004, Neil Armfield's production of Ariadne was acclaimed for its perfectly-pitched balance of humour and tenderness: this revival continues the good work, and the new cast fields singing which matches and at times even surpasses the high standards of the original.
The Prologue is beautifully judged from the off - an elaborate rider of exotic fruits is delivered for the leading lady, leather-clad designers throw queenie-fits at stroppy, steam-addicted singers, and Eric Roberts's camp Major-Domo presides over all with jobsworthy relish - yet, as my companion remarked, the busy-ness could do with being taken down just a notch: do the burlesque troupe really need to try on each of their costumes in turn, for example, in a scene which is already potentially bewildering in its rapid-fire dialogue and melée of characters? One of the talking-points of this revival was, of course, the UK role-debut of travesty-mezzo par excellence Sarah Connolly as the embattled Composer (she has already sung the part to great acclaim at the Met, earlier this year). She did not disappoint, turning in a beautifully-judged performance which captured every nuance of this pretentious, insecure yet lovable young idealist, and evoking humour and sympathy by turns: there were audible giggles from the audience at some of 'his' most po-faced and melodramatic pronouncements about art/love/death, yet the shy interplay with Zerbinetta was genuinely moving and even throw-away lines such as 'I forget things easily' were delivered touchingly. She seemed utterly at ease with the cruel tessitura of the role, and I detected none of the strain in the upper reaches which other reviewers mentioned after the opening night: just occasionally I longed for a touch more metal in the sound, particular in the final minutes of the Prologue, but Lothar Koenigs's sensitive pacing and dynamic shading allowed Connolly's essentially lyric instrument to soar above the stave without hardening or curdling under pressure.
Gillian Keith's all-singing-all-dancing Zerbinetta played the tart-with-a-heart to perfection and looked gorgeous in her range of super-cute costumes, but somehow the vocal pyrotechnics never really seemed to ignite: she tended to back off or inch up to those stratospheric top notes, which - all present and correct though they were - seemed to be right at the limit of her upper register (I remember Katarzyna Dondalska, her predecessor in this production, literally stopping the show for several minutes by interpolating a bulls-eye top A at the end of her long aria). Perhaps the most thrilling singing came from the glorious Orla Boylan in the title-role, fully in command of the dark, almost steely lower register and clarion top notes which the music demands, with a mellifluous way with Strauss's endless phrases and a fine line in regal hauteur. The three nymphs (Mary-Jean O'Doherty, Patricia Orr and Joanne Boag) complemented her perfectly, and in their later scene in particular they produced some of the most beautifully blended ensemble-singing I've ever heard in an opera-house. I was initially a bit underwhelmed by Ricardo Tamura's vocally and visually unglamorous Bacchus (oh, to have Jonas Kaufmann in this role...): his timbre is more Mime than Siegfried, but he had plenty of stamina for what is a horrendously taxing role, and as the scene went on it became apparent that the unheroic appearance (and the residual froideur between him and his leading lady) was a deliberate throwback to the Prologue - small wonder that The Tenor didn't want to wear this wig!
One of the most memorable aspects of this production was the way that the interplay between the tragic and comic elements was constantly kept in sight: lovely touches in this respect included the exasperated Prima Donna's quick glance round to check that the stage was clear of pesky comedians before delivering a barnstorming 'Es gibt ein Reich', her constant battle with a cumbersome train on her costume, an 'accidental' early entry from the burlesquers and some very funny interplay between the nymphs and the comedy-troupe as the girls seemed unsure whether to beat them or join them. And (unlike Rupert Christiansen) I loved the 'in character' curtain-call, with Zerbinetta unwittingly upstaging a furious Prima Donna, Bacchus glowering at the Harlequin before indulging a Pavarotti-esque flourish, the Music-Master acknowledging the band and a bashful, relieved Connolly taking the finally honours. This Is a clever, funny, touching and spine-tinglingly well sung Ariadne - go to it!