Review: Ariadne auf Naxos (Opera Holland Park)

Opera Holland Park scores a triumph with its first-ever staging of a Richard Strauss opera

Julia Sporsén as the Composer and Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (OHP)
Julia Sporsén as the Composer and Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos (OHP)
© Robert Workman

The fine folk of Opera Holland Park have crossed a line. They're no strangers to good work but this co-production with Scottish Opera tips over into something new: a confident display of world-class brilliance. Richard Strauss's two-part oddity Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera that's hard to get right and even harder to do well, hence so many dodgy productions, but Antony McDonald's staging is all things bright and beautiful.

It's the detail that delights, both on the stage and in the City of London Sinfonia's exquisite rendition of the filigree orchestral score under Brad Cohen's loving baton. McDonald stages the 40-minute Prologue in English – an admirable plan when there's so much wittering to digest, all of it conversationally sung or spoken – so there's no impediment to understanding that two troupes of performers, one seriously operatic, the other a bunch of knockabout clowns, are obliged by a wealthy benefactor to combine their performances into a single hybrid whole.

The modernised concept plays out in front of a Scottish stately pile that's not unlike Holland House. For Scottish Opera's Glasgow performances that had been impersonated by a convincing backdrop; here it's played by the real thing. Other guest artists during the Prologue include Eleanor Bron as a broad Scots party planner plus Jamie MacDougall and Stephen Gadd as, respectively, the producer and professor of composition.

However, the first part of the evening belongs unequivocally to Julia Sporsén as the Composer of the eponymous Ariadne opera. Playing her role as a busy, buzzing and passionate control freak who is only reconciled to her preposterous position by a latent attraction to lowbrow-in-chief Zerbinetta, the soprano (not here a mezzo, as has become the custom, nor dragged up as a man) inflects every word with sense and gauges her character's priceless reactions with entertaining care.

Space only allows short shrift for the supporting cast, though you'll marvel at the acrobatics of Alex Otterburn, Daniel Norman, Lancelot Nomura and Elgan Llŷr Thomas as the vaudevillians (skills trainer: Joe Dieffenbacher) and melt to the ensemble beauty – not to mention the ravishing costumes – of Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall as Ariadne's nymphs. All of them despatch their intricate Straussian material with ease.

At the top table sit the American soprano Mardi Byers as little miss gloom, aka Ariadne herself, and Dutch tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Bacchus. She may have too much vibrato and he may be taxed by the supercharged notes he has to deliver from cold, but both of these roles are big sings for big voices and they deliver the goods in spades.

McDonald as designer and director can seem less interested in this pair of sobersides than he is in the comic routines, and as a result the opera's climactic transcendence feels slightly muted. However, his attentive response to both score and libretto is encapsulated in a hundred tiny felicities such as the delicacy with which a loving Dryad gathers up Ariadne's discarded gown. Directing wannabes, watch and learn.

When it comes to Zerbinetta, a role of gold for a coloratura soprano, we're in star-turn territory. Jennifer France has been championed by OHP for several years now and she returns the company's faith in her by delivering one of the performances of the year. Decked out like Marlene Dietrich, France performs an elaborate striptease during her 12-minute showstopping aria and, I swear, makes eye contact with every hot-blooded male and female in the audience. More importantly, this living jewel in opera's crown sings the heck out of her music – helium notes and all.