Matthew Williams-Ellis

Ariadne auf Naxos

Reviewer's Rating

Ariadne auf Naxos is one of the most poetical, intellectual, and musically nuanced of operas, a sophisticate treat. Written by Hugo von Hoffmansthal and Richard Strauss, it began life as a 30 minute bagatelle that then just grew. For years it was largely neglected, but it has finally come into its own; and the new production at Longborough is a complete triumph. Every role is suitably cast both for the drama and the voices; there is great respect for all aspects of the music and the drama overlaid by some very apt hilarity; and Anthony Negus conducts the score with complete understanding of its development and dynamics, eliciting from his smallish forces rich and superb playing throughout.

Director Alan Privett, like Negus, seems to have a strong understanding of the work and its underlying complexities. On the surface this is a charming and delightful sketch. The first half incorporates a debate about high versus low art, among other things. The second half is the illustration of that debate by the presentation of a hybrid work that mixes commedia dell’arte lowbrow players into a pastiche, highbrow opera seria that sends up and also pays homage to Gluck, Handel, and even Richard Wagner. It also somehow also manages to convey what Jung would have considered the collective unconscious aspects of the original myth of Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on Naxos and her rescue by Bacchus.

What can one say about a production in which every nuance and layer of the script and the music have been approached with reverence, wit and complete sympathy? It would take me a long chapter truly to analyse the evening. The updating of the action to the present day works very well both dramatically and in the design by Faye Bradley and is telling; and the rendering of all spoken dialogue (as opposed to what is sung) in English rather than the original German actually adds to the humour of this comedy. (After failing in Fidelio and working in The Magic Flute, this approach seems to have become a house style.) Clare Presland is superb as the Composer, capturing the ardour, youth, sexiness, and commitment to art. Her voice has a wonderful, unique timbre and her acting is completely appealing. Because of the modernisation of the setting it also seems apt that the role, though nominally that of a boy, is played by a woman.

And what an opera! Helena Dix brings incredible beauty of tone and dramatic commitment to her sequence, rising to a swelling ecstasy that looks forward to what is to come. Robyn Allegra Parton is cheeky and delightful as Zerbinetta, energetic in voice and action, and accurate in her notes in one of the most difficult aria sequences in all of opera. She just about stopped the show with her long address to Ariadne (grossmachtige Prinzessen) after having made quite an impression when she seduced the young composer in Act One. Naiad (Suzanne Fischer), Dryad (Flora McIntosh) and Echo (Alice Privett) are individually characterised in fine voice; their voices blend stunningly when required to do so. But above all I must praise Negus, who controls the development of the musical side of the opera superbly and builds it so that from the arrival of Bacchus we experience something of the ecstasy and passion of the transformation of Ariadne that the original myth must have been about. Here Bacchus is a hero (sung and acted heroically by a very attractive Jonathan Stoughton) who has been able to resist Circe, and who awakens Ariadne back to life and love. Stoughton and Dix were well-matched vocally and histrionically and made that last section of the evening into a fulfilling and brilliant climax. All in all, this is another superb evening for Longborough. I believe it is their first foray into Richard Strauss – a perfect choice, because the intimacy of the opera and its scale perfectly suit the intimacy and scale of this opera house. I expect that it will not be the last Richard Strauss that they do.