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Ariadne auf Naxos

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss

Opera North

Grand Theatre, Leeds

February 18-March 1, 2023 inc The Lowry, Salford (March 10): 2 hrs 40 mins


All-singing and dancing: Jennifer France as Zerbinetta (foreground) and Elizabeth Llewellyn as the Prima Donna with other members of the cast in Opera North's production of Ariadne auf Naxos. All pics: Richard H Smith

Ariadne auf Naxos is an unusual kind of opera. It’s a combination of fun and seriousness, and of different styles, alternated and put together, on the basis that a wealthy man has hired two different troupes to perform for the same evening but the preceding dinner overruns and they must go on together to finish in time for the concluding fireworks. It’s in two sections (the first labelled “Prologue” and the second a one-act “Opera”), and the first shows the backstage shenanigans leading to the performance we see in the second.

That’s what Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal made of it in 1916, anyway - after their first plan, combining straight Molière comedy with full-on opera, proved less than a complete success.

Rodula Gaitanou’s production for Opera North, a joint one with Gothenburg Opera, reimagines the scenario to place it all on a film set, probably in the 1950s. Self-indulgence on the part of the director (on the model of Fellini), hitting the buffers when money runs out, gives a new rationale to the story of crashing artistic concepts. The Prima Donna becomes a big film star, complete with little pocket dog whose naughtinesses have to be cleaned up after her; while the Harlequinade-style comic performers become a set of burlesque caricatures.

The rest is pretty much as in the original: the serious opera’s young composer is at first appalled at the trashing of his creation, but falls for the charming danceuse, Zerbinetta, who leads the comic troupe; the Prima Donna goes ahead with her big scene in the opera proper, but gets interrupted by the comedians and Zerbinetta, who suggest she should just cheer up and forget the lover she’s pining for. Then the opera story plays out as the god Bacchus arrives unexpectedly, but a new love between him and Ariadne triumphs in the end.

There’s quite a lot of metaphysical philosophising built into it all, which brought out some of the most highly-exalted vocal writing Strauss ever created, not just for his classical characters but also for the figure of the Composer in the “Prologue” (sung, slightly disconcertingly, by a soprano in trousers – but that’s Richard Strauss for you): at the same time he enjoyed making the lighter style of operetta all his own, especially in a show-stopping number for Zerbinetta in the “Opera”.

Needless to say, pulling all this off requires a skilfully chosen cast of singers at the top of their game, who can find both the comedy and the nobility, when needed, of their roles.

That’s where this production really has it all. Elizabeth Llewellyn (Prima Donna/Ariadne) is one of the most remarkable voices on the British operatic stage right now, with a fabulous lower register; Ric Furman is a real Heldentenor and they make the final love duet very special. Jennifer France has played Zerbinetta before, to much acclaim, and she dances and sings her way through this version in tremendous style. Hanna Hipp (the Composer) is a young actor-singer of tremendous ability, and the comically-gifted John Savournin leads a team of great performers who make the Opera North philosophy of an “ensemble” company come wonderfully into its own.

And, in the end, we even get fireworks.

Further performances are in Nottingham (March 17) and Newcastle (March 24).


More info and tickets here



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