Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera Holland Park, OHP, July 2018Posted on 18 July 2018
This remarkable opera by Richard Strauss has become flavour of the month with productions at both Longborough and Opera Holland Park. Its brilliant libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal juxtaposes a young composer’s new opera on the plight of Ariadne with a commedia dell’arte entertainment, both to be performed for guests at the house of one of the super-rich.
The back-story to Ariadne is that she has absconded with Theseus, after helping him escape the Minotaur in the Cretan Labyrinth, hoping for a future together. But he has sailed away and now yearns only for death, awaiting the god who will accompany her on that final journey. The host paying for the two entertainments is keen to have them finished before the fireworks, and wants to enliven Ariadne’s lamentation and yearning on a deserted island with a combined performance of both opera and dance masquerade. His will prevails, and Act II shows the result.
In Antony McDonald’s production for Holland Park, the dance troupe (Alex Otterburn, Daniel Norman, Lancelot Nomura, Elgan Llyr Thomas) demonstrates excellent circus skills in Act II, and when Ariadne has found new love with Bacchus at the end of the opera, fireworks are set off on stage — a nice touch. The director has adapted the story, turning Ariadne into a bride jilted at the altar, the bridesmaids being her desert island companions, Naiad, Dryad and Echo. Zerbinetta explains the jilted bride idea to her dance troupe in an English version of the libretto for Act I (though the second act is entirely in German), and another unusual feature occurs in the final moments when the union of Bacchus and Ariadne is complemented by the composer returning on stage to find love with Zerbinetta, while the members of the dance troupe couple with Ariadne’s Naiad (Elizabeth Cragg), Dryad (Laura Zigmantaite) and Echo (Lucy Hall).
As befits a summer performance at the house of a very wealthy man, everything is shown to take place in the open air with caravans and mobile homes for the performers. This worked well, but some other things did not. Turning the spoken role of the supercilious Major Domo into a ‘party planner’ played by Eleanor Bron fell short as she lacked stage presence and the ability to project her voice. From the orchestra pit, Brad Cohen concentrated his energy on the final union of Ariadne and Bacchus, but failed to produce the musical dynamics inherent to Richard Strauss’s composition, particularly in Act I where the performance of the young composer (strongly sung by Julia Sporsén) did not gel with the orchestra; and I found it odd that the costume for this trouser role clearly showed a dark bra underneath a white polka dot blouse.
Among supporting roles the composer’s mentor was very well sung by Stephen Gadd, but there is something wrong when the emotional high points of Act I were achieved by the terrific Zerbinetta of Jennifer France, rather than the composer. As Ariadne, American soprano Mardi Byers was unconvincing and lacked strength in the lower register, but the Bacchus of Dutch baritone Kor-Jan Dusseljee produced wonderful healing balm with his strong lyricism.
An intriguing production with a performance that came together well at the end after a musically weak Act I.
Performances continue on various dates until July 27 — for details click here.