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Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera North review - funny and beautifully sung | reviews, news & interviews

Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera North review - funny and beautifully sung

Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera North review - funny and beautifully sung

Genre-busting opera with some of Strauss’s most glorious and demanding vocal writing

Burlesque entertainers and a Prima Donna: Adrian Dwyer as Brighella, Alex Banfield as Scaramuccio, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, John Savournin as Truffaldino, Dominic Sedgwick as Harlequin and Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne in Opera North’s production of Strauss’s 'Ariadne auf Naxos'Richard H Smith

Rodula Gaitanou’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a hugely entertaining treatment of an opera that brings its fair share of problems to any company, and the chief virtue of Opera North’s presentation (a co-production with Gothenburg Opera, now seen in the UK for the first time) is the wonderfully well suited casting.

This is the 1916 version of the piece, the scenario adapted to position the Prologue (the first Act, essentially) in a 20th century film studio (Fellini's, the programme book tells us), rather than a wealthy dwelling in the Vienna of the past.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as AriadneForget the vicissitudes that led to Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal having a second go at their subject (which began as an attempt to marry straight theatre with opera) – there’s enough genre-busting in its incarnation for music theatre performers alone, as Strauss, still fresh from the triumph of Der Rosenkavalier, was keen to show off his ability in Operette style: that being something potentially as demanding of its singers as opera itself, even though amusement and sentimentality were also high on its list of ingredients.

Gaitanou’s production endeavours to capture the immediacy he sought in mixing singing and parlando speech in the Prologue by having it in a mix of English and German (with some Italian thrown in). We’re on a film sound stage where two movies are in production, one a serious treatment of the mythical story of the abandoned Ariadne, the other a burlesque-style comedy. Financial problems mean that both must be shot simultaneously, with a tight deadline because there’s going to be a firework display at the end of the day, too (pictured above right: Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne).

In this respect the situation is not unlike the Hofmannsthal one, of two companies with two shows for a private patron having to put them on jointly to meet a similar time constraint: the “Maecenas” whose palatial home was the original setting doesn’t sing or speak, but here we see him as the studio boss, complete with entourage, though silent.

The characters of the original are suitably adapted in Gaitanou’s scenario, though the English parts of the text, in Christopher Cowell’s translation, remain remarkably close to its roots, with mentions of “the audience”, and the “entertainment” being planned for “in the garden”. It just about works, though you need to suspend some disbelief. But this is all a fantasy world, anyway – it can’t be taken too seriously, and Strauss’s music carries the day, as it was always meant to. It’s not so much a backstage drama of how opera-making is done (a meme that Donizetti mined in Le Convenienze ed Inconvenienze Teatrali, seen at Buxton International Festival last year as Viva la Diva, and Charles Edwards used for Opera North’s Pagliacci in 2017) as a dream of how it might be in La-La Land, and the important thing is that it’s funny, as well as beautifully sung. In this aspect Opera North have come up with the goods in their ensemble-based approach, with Dean Robinson and John Savournin leading the way in the Prologue and Jeremy Peaker making a telling contribution.

Hanna Hipp as Composer in Opera North’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos cr Richard H SmithGuest artists are equally well fitted. Hanna Hipp makes a powerful fist of The Composer (pictured left), which is a soprano trouser role and carries some musical weight (remember this is Richard Strauss, who took these things seriously even when in comedy mode). She sang “You Venus’ boy” (Du Venus’ Sohn) with beautiful, gently floated tone, and rose to real heights for her later hymn to “the sacred art” of music (Sein wir wieder gut). Elizabeth Llewellyn, also debuting with Opera North, was the Prima Donna and acted in appropriate style: her big scena was still to come, of course. I wondered whether there was symbolism in the allocation of English or German, or both, to different characters, and concluded that there was no more to it than the idea of a film set as a multi-lingual environment: others may see more, perhaps.

As the burlesque troupe, we first meet Zerbinetta, sung and danced by Jennifer France delightfully (and with her greatest scene also still to come), and then Truffaldino, brilliantly acted by John Savournin, Harlequin (Dominic Sedgwick), Scaramuccio (Alex Banfield) and Brighella (Adrian Dwyer).

The “opera” proper (second Act, effectively) is where the leading singers have their chances to explore some of Strauss’s most glorious, and demanding, writing for the voice. In staging, it’s very much as in the original scenario – two shows concertina’d into one – except that in this production there are film cameras and lights around the edge of the stage, and Bacchus (who’s going to be Ariadne’s love, once they’ve each sorted out their mistaken apprehension of who the other is) makes his entrance on a sound stage gantry – a genuine deus ex machina! We also see the Composer still very much around (though silent) and very much fallen for the charms of Zerbinetta, giving the love interest of the plot a neat double quality. And at the close there really are fireworks – a happy ending to beat all happy endings.

The trio of nymphs – Amy Freston (Echo) leading them in movements that might be those of water-borne Rhinemaidens in another context, with Daisy Brown (Naiad) and Laura Kelly-McInroy (Dryad) – are nicely matched for height and build, sing sweetly, and play their parts alongside the burlesque artistes adroitly.

Elizabeth Llewellyn sang her tragic “Es gibt ein Reich” gloriously, and the quality of her gorgeous low register is one of the phenomena of this show that sticks in the memory, but it was Jennifer France’s “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”, top Ds and all, that stole the show on the first night, bringing her the first spontaneous applause of the evening.

Ric Furman as Bacchus in Opera North’s production of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos cr Richard H SmithBut the final love duet, sometimes criticised for prolixity and for merely pulling the same levers as the final pages of Rosenkavalier, proved the inspired quality of the cast Opera North have gathered for this production. Ric Furman (Bacchus, pictured right) is a tenor of the quality that Strauss must have often longed for: heroic and passionate together, and convincing in godlike appearance, he made the ideal partner for Llewellyn, and they gave the finale the vocal splendour that provides a treat for the listener and goes a long way to proving that the real composer of Ariadne auf Naxos had certainly not gone into auto-pilot. 

It was of course down to Antony Hermus’s conducting that the whole show took wings, and the orchestral playing was sumptuous and finely disciplined. The principal guest conductor role created for him by Opera North only relatively recently is already paying rich dividends, and it’s gratifying to see that his work in 2018, conducting what was then Opera North’s new Tosca (now in repertoire with this and The Cunning Little Vixen), was, as I hoped then, so very well received.

  • Ariadne auf Naxos at Leeds Grand Theatre on 21 and 24 February and 1 March. Further performances in Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle and Hull

Comments

I know Ric Furman, and he is one of the greatest heldentenors I have ever heard sing. And yes, if Herr Strauss were alive today, he would surely commend Ric's incredible singing! Also, this opera is a wonderful and glorious piece which only a select few can really sing the way it should be heard!

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