The opera by Richard Strauss is about the competition between high art and low art, high brow vs comedy, divas vs clowns. A Composer is commissioned by a rich gentleman to create an opera based on Greek mythology, while the gentleman has also engaged a comedy troupe, led by burlesque superstar Zerbinetta – neither know the other will be there on the same night.
Act One (The Prologue) opens in the green room where the casts of both shows are warming up. A long marble table is set with coffee and tea, and the 3 racks of costumes are brought in by the comedy troupe. The Composer, Eva-Marie Middleton, is excited for her opera to open, and the comedy troupe are looking to make mischief. A white scrim covers the back part of the stage, which is used later on to show the stage.
The fickle master of the house forces the two casts to work together to combine the shows as he has paid for expensive fireworks and the evening is progressing. The major domo, who is tasked with communicating this to the casts to great dismay from all, in this production talks through an intercom to great effect. Voiced by assistant director, Nick Maclaine, the major domo is sarcastic and bored and it makes the interchange very funny. Eva-Marie as composer is a wonderful singer, and her highs of loving her music to her lows of being forced to change her work to accommodate the clowns are beautifully played out. She was one of the strongest parts of the first Act. A special mention here must go to Ry Charleson as Brighella who was a cheeky troubadour who looked like he was having a ball.
The music is very technical in the first Act. In the programme the conductor Christopher Dragon tells us this is a difficult opera, highly complex for the singers as well as the orchestra. There are a few nice songs but most is scene setting, which is pretty but not sublime. This is no fault of the performers but I would have liked to have had a showstopper in the Prologue. There is an aria that is sung between the Composer, Eva-Marie and Zerbinetta, Jenna Robertson playing the burlesque dancer, where Zerbinetta has to convince the composer to go ahead with the plan and that was nicely done. Scattered throughout are charming moments of laugh out loud comedy. There is a very funny scene right at the end of the Act which shows the ways in which both casts do not want to work together involving a beach ball. Thus the first Act sets up the conceit that all hell will break loose in the second Act. It made us go to the interval excited for what is to come.
Act Two (The Opera) begins with the opera, the eponymous Ariadne auf Naxos. The Composer is seen hyperventilating at the turn of events and comes to sit in the audience, where she occasionally yells out at the stage. The audience loved this.
The opera is set on the island of Naxos, where Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover Theseus and is watched over by three Nymphs. Ariadne mourns her lost love and waits for the god Hermes to come and take her to her death. The music that opens the second Act is sublime, Fiona Jopson who plays Ariadne has a beautiful soprano voice which made me want her to never stop singing. She was the major highlight of the show. The Nymphs harmonise with her and suddenly I felt like I was really watching an opera. We know something is coming, and the comedy in the entrance of the comedy troupe is delightful. There is a 15 minute period in the second Act that I found a little long. Zerbinetta is given a long aria, which is done in the coloratura style, a virtuoso style of singing major scales and trills and wide leaps. For my taste, I found this difficult to listen to at length and Jenna Robertson’s voice felt stretched.
Zerbinetta convinces Ariadne that, essentially, the best way to get over the man is to get under another one. The clowns take over for a while, and Ariadne gives up in a huff, before a strong finale with the entrance of Bacchus who is there to save her. Ariadne thinks Bacchus is actually Hermes, taking her to her death and there is confusion. Throw in a side love story between the diva who plays Ariadne and Truffaldin, played by Charles Bogle who is great as the love struck clown, and you have a Shakespearean Comedy of Errors. Confused? It is a hard opera to explain but very easy to watch. Sung entirely in German, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, there are surtitles. These are a small work of genius from the Director Kathryn Osborne and Assistant Director Nick Maclaine. They are modernised and very irreverent and made the surtitles fun to watch. I thought the broad farce element was very well executed, and there are some lovely moments. For my taste, the second Act had nicer music to listen to. I had a small niggle that during the interval I could hear singing from backstage, which for me breaks the magic of the curtain opening. A small pedantic niggle.
I thoroughly enjoyed my night at the opera and highly recommend the show to all.