As the final opera this season Opera Holland Park presents the second and usually performed version of ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’. It is an exceptionally successful capstone to the season, an apt choice for a summer evening and for this venue, and performed with rare invention and technical accomplishment by all concerned.
The Prologue to the opera takes us backstage at a grand house where an after-dinner entertainment is planned. The trouble is the patron keeps on changing his ideas and ends up requiring a serious opera devoted to the romance of Ariadne and Bacchus (think Titian’s famous painting in the National Gallery) to be intermingled with the routine of a comedy troupe led by the flighty chanteuse, Zerbinetta. This triggers a swathe of thespian and diva protest but ultimately, after a shared moment of romance and mutual insight between the Composer and Zerbinetta, a way forward is found into the one-act opera. At the centre of this lies a duel and encounter of Wagnerian proportions between Ariadne, awaiting death after previous abandonment, and Bacchus, the new god in her life. Zerbinetta and the comedians provide diversion and the embodiment of an altogether more secular, epicurean take on life.
In summary, this may seem ‘much ado’ about not very much. But in truth it is one of the most felicitous of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaborations. It offers rich scope both for comic invention and stage business but also exploration of some deep aesthetic and human questions in a framework that is accessible rather than philosophically abstruse. Who should call the tune – the patron or the artist? How can music be a ‘holy art’ and a source of entertainment? How many forms does love take and how do we find the kind that will satisfy ourselves. All these themes are there, and more. A fine production needs to provide entertainment to be sure, but also points of exquisite repose in which the audience can reflect for themselves.
This is a joint-production with Scottish Opera, which explains the Scottish twists in the first half. We are at the house of the richest man in Glasgow, as his party planner (Eleanor Bron) attempts to reconcile all the artists and prevent them from flouncing off back to their caravans. The text is updated to idiomatic English by Helen Cooper, whereas the opera itself stays in German, with surtitles. Holland House itself is neatly enough the grand house of the scenario. Outstanding in the first half is Julia Sporsén as the Composer: despite having to demonstrate a lot of physical agility she soars and glides through her encomium to the power of music with great intensity, and her crucial relationship with the pert and precise Zerbinetta of Jennifer France, is for once genuinely plausible as a same-sex attraction.
In the second half Antony McDonald (who designs as well as directs), replaces the scruffy caravans with a lavish abandoned wedding feast to introduce a thoroughly depressed and suicidal Ariadne (Mardi Byers) supported by her attendants, all three wearing exquisitely nuanced costumes that subtly express their individual characters. The darker, heavier quality of the music is well projected through the vocal timbre of these performers, and then leavened by the interruptions from Zerbinetta and her companions. Their routine is consistently inventive and genuinely funny (we note the presence of a ‘circus skills director’ on the creative team!); and France stops the show with her coloratura showpiece aria. Again costume is very helpful here: her imitation of Dietrich and Julie Andrews in donning male evening dress (before shedding it) seems entirely apposite. Bacchus is a difficult role to bring off – the late-arriving heroic god, who has to go from ‘nought to sixty’ in no time at all. Kor-Jan Dusselje is an older than usual performer of this role, but that in fact makes him more plausible, and he is fully equal to the steep vocal demands.
This score is a tribute to Strauss’s peerless skills as an orchestrator: the number of players is small but the sounds conjured up create a range from chamber-music intimacy to symphony orchestra at full tilt. Brad Cohen ensures his players listen to each other carefully, and is fully sensitive to the ebb and flow of this music, whether sumptuous or silvery.
This is the first time that Opera Holland Park has ventured into Richard Strauss, and on this evidence we can only hope that they feel emboldened to explore this repertory more thoroughly. The final firework display not only marked another example of creative attention to plot detail, but also was a fully deserved tribute at the end of a season of consistent and variegated excellence.