Ariadne auf Naxos

Richard Strauss
Welsh National Opera
Grand Theatre, Swansea, and touring

Ariadne auf Naxos production shot

This is a curate's egg of an opera. It gives little obeisance to Aristotle's Poetics with a convoluted plot that meanders between high comedy and mythical Greek drama. Here we have Commedia dell'Arte characters intermingling with a Greek heroine, Ariadne, which is a fine device if comedy is your intention.

One approach is to consider that Richard Strauss was basically poking fun, not only at theatrical convention, but at Mozart and Wagnarian influences that dominated German opera for many years.

The fantastic coloratura pyrotechnics with which Zerbinetta has to deal provides us with a wonderfully comic sequence during which the whole technique is sent up (Pun intended). I think Mozart would have enjoyed the joke.

Then we have the final scene of the opera complete with model ship that is mechanical worked along a wire in time to distant horns, an echo of The Flying Dutchman.

In the prologue we see a present day back-stage setting where the Commedia dell'Arte characters are presented as "serious" and the main opera characters as silly and frivolous. A wealthy patron has insisted that as fireworks are due to commence at 9 o'clock it is necessary to merge the comedy and the opera to save time. This could be an operatic version of Noises Off.

So we are primed for comedy and in the second act we see a morbid Ariadne beautifully cheered up by the colourful Commedia characters.

The final scene attempts to resolve Ariadne's plight by uniting her with Bacchus, but because of what has gone befor, we assume that all of this is tongue in cheek and we patiently await the much needed intervention of the comedians. Unfortunately, they don't appear until the very end when they stand close to the wings in wonder at what they see.

Yes, I was wondering with them.

The music in this opera is an acquired taste. It places great demands on the vocal techniques of the performers and I admire them for their stamina and concentration. However, the only moment that one could call tuneful is given to the character of the composer during the prologue. You don't come away from this opera humming tunes.

As a visual spectacle this production was of a high standard with attractive costumes and a spectacular lighting effect at the end.

For me the highlights were the fine vocal performances by Imelda Drumm as the Composer, Katarzyna Dondalska's Zerbinetta, Janice Watson's Ariadne and Peter Hoare's Bacchus. In addition, the Commedia characters always gave a much-needed lift to the proceedings.

The orchestra, conducted by Carlo Rizzi, approached this difficult score with absolute authority.

All in all this was an excellent production of what I consider to be a second rate opera. I certainly wouldn't rush out to buy the CD.

Reviewer: Tony Layton

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