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<em>Ariadne auf Naxos</me> at Investec Opera Holland Park
18 Jul 2018

A stellar Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. Originally a Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss hybrid, the 1916 version presented in Vienna ditched Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which had preceded an operatic telling of the Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, and replaced it with a Prologue in which buffa met seria as competing factions prepared to present an entertainment for ‘the richest man in Vienna’. He’s a man who has ordered two entertainments, to follow an epicurean feast, and he wants these dramatic digestifs served simultaneously.

Ariadne auf Naxos at Investec Opera Holland Park

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Laura Zigmantaite as Dryad, Elizabeth Cragg as Naiad and Lucy Hall as Echo

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

This co-production between Investec Opera Holland Park and Scottish Opera adds further bifocal perspectives. Antony McDonald’s production was originally staged in spring, behind the scenes of the mansion belong to ‘the richest man in Glasgow’, and now the director and designer has brought the show from north to south, morphing the Scottish pile into South Kensington’s Holland Park House.

The rival operatic and vaudeville troupes are cooped up in tatty trailers either side of the lawn, the burlesque comedians, circus artists and MC taking the air on the top of their grass-bound motorhome, the diva and her tenor lounging in a curtained caravan.

Ali Wright-40 (1).jpg
Julia Sporsén (Composer), Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) [Photo credit: Ali Wright]

The Prologue antics are rather frantic as Stephen Gadd’s deliciously poker-faced Music Teacher receives and rebuffs the news - delivered in broad Glaswegian brogue by Eleanor Bron’s Party-Planner (aka the Major Domo) - that his protégé’s classical-themed opera will need to be synchronised with the burlesque troupe’s acrobatics if the money-man’s pyrotechnic coda is to be lit by 9pm. The colloquial quips of Helen Cooper’s English translation help Strauss’s conversational idiom to skip along, but the acoustics of Opera Holland Park’s dome defeated Bron, and sadly I for one struggled to make sense of her spoken text (for which there were no surtitles - a pity, in an unforgiving venue).

Seria and buffa elements were confrontational rather than cohesive - perhaps that’s how it should be - but Julia Sporsén’s Composer brought disparate parts into a cohesive whole, with her Schubertian-Straussian paean an die Musik. Sporsén’s soprano shone and thrilled and both her declaration that music is a holy art and her interactions with Zerbinetta were genuinely touching. Jennifer France’s Dietrich-like, dynamic Zerbinetta may have thought she was engaging in mild flirtation, but her heart was clearly hooked by the Composer’s soulful sincerity and artistic and romantic integrity. And, here McDonald has added another piquant twist, making the Composer a woman - given that Sporsén sported a blue suit and the only hint of femininity was dark underwear showing through her white polka-dot blouse, some in the audience may have been confused -thereby adding a touch of spice to the androgynous aromas of Strauss’s original travesti interactions.

The gender-switch also means that it is a woman who has penned the tale of Ariadne’s love, loyalty and loss, subtly shifting the sympathies of the perspective. When Mardi Byers appears at the start of Act 2 and lingers beside a grand dining-table, abandoned mid-meal - taking a glug of red wine from a half-filled glass, gazing forlornly at an un-cut tiered cake - it’s hard not to see a hint of Miss Haversham’s Satis House mausoleum, spacious and handsome but in which ‘every discernible thing in it was covered with dust and mould, and dropping to pieces’, the most prominent object being ‘a long table with a tablecloth spread on it, as if a feast had been in preparation when the house and the clocks all stopped together’.

Vaudeville.jpgDaniel Norman (Scaramuccio), Jennifer France (Zerbinetta), Lancelot Nomura (Truffaldino) and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Brighella). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Dickens jilted bride ‘laid the whole place waste, as you have seen it, and she has never since looked upon the light of day’, and so this Ariadne stares yearning at the coffin which she longs to make her final resting place, sooner rather than later. Only the dulcet urgings of the three nymphs keep her from the abyss. Elizabeth Cragg (Naiad), Laura Zigmantaite (Dryad) and Lucy Hall (Echo) resembled the Queen of the Night’s Three Ladies in their gorgeous frocks, with bat-like trains, of white-grey-black: veritable bridesmaids-in-decay.

McDonald doesn’t quite keep seria and buffa in balance, and the vaudeville troupe threaten to up-stage the classical in Act 2, especially when they take a rest from the show-casing their spectacular circus skills - not one spinning china-plate fell - and they grab the wedding-cake from the table and flick through a book of Greek myths. Circus skills director Joe Dieffenbacher has mentored his tutees expertly and Alex Otterburn (Harlequin), Daniel Norman (Scaramuccio), Lancelot Nomura (Truffaldino) and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Brighella) form a compelling vocal and kinetic ensemble. And, to be honest, it’s a relief, after several recent productions, to have a vaudeville troupe who are more Berlin satire than barbershop saccharinity.

Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Bacchus and Mardi Byers as Ariadne.jpg Kor-Jan Dusseljee (Bacchus) and Mardi Byers (Ariadne). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The arrival of Kor-Jan Dusseljee’s stentorian Bacchus - high notes sometimes a little overly ear-piercing but still remarkably true and firm - marked a shift in the dramatic dynamic from triviality to transcendence. Byers didn’t negotiate every phrase with Straussian suavity, but there were rich colours and honest emotions, and this Ariadne’s torment and troubles were palpably evident. In their final duet, she and Dusseljee effected the necessary translation and quickly the busy preliminaries to their romantic apotheosis were forgotten as they drew us into their unearthly paradise. It was at this moment too that conductor Brad Cohen, who had presided over an impressive account of Strauss’s sumptuous music up to this point, seemed to become totally absorbed, his arms swirling and sweeping all sumptuously into Strauss’s musical magic.

Zerbinetta Workman.jpg Jennifer France (Zerbinetta). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

But the real transcendence was to be found elsewhere. When Strauss began setting Hofmannsthal’s libretto he said that he envisaged Zerbinetta as the leading role, and he told his librettist that he would be writing the part for a high coloratura soprano - Ariadne was originally to be a contralto - advising Hofmannsthal to listen to Selma Kurz, the first Zerbinetta, singing arias from La sonnambula or Lucia di Lammermoor if he wanted to get a feel for the idiom. And, so it was that Jennifer France was the true Sirius in a stellar show, delivering her vocal acrobatics with astonishing athleticism, precision and expressive nuance, all the while performing a teasing strip-show. Languor and assertiveness were wonderfully melded in sensual sublimity. It was hard to tell who enjoyed it most: France or the mesmerised audience.

And, it was France who held our attention in the closing moments. With Ariadne and Bacchus united in divine devotion, one by one the other characters crept in to witness the denouement and take their bows. Sporsén’s Composer was the last, and her arrival drew Zerbinetta from her embrace with Harlequin: it was the women’s love that had the last word. A love celebrated by a fountain of fireworks - an hour late, at 10pm, but still a fitting accolade for Investec Holland Park’s vocally stunning Strauss debut.

Claire Seymour

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

The Prima Donna/Ariadne - Mardi Byers, The Tenor/Bacchus - Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Zerbinetta - Jennifer France, Harlequin - Alex Otterburn, Scaramuccio - Daniel Norman, Truffaldino - Lancelot Nomura, Brighella - Elgan Llŷr Thomas, The Party Planner - Eleanor Bron, The Professor of Composition - Stephen Gadd , The Composer - Julia Sporsén, The Producer - Jamie MacDougall, Naiad - Elizabeth Cragg, Dryad - Laura Zigmantaite, Echo - Lucy Hall , Wig Master - Thomas Humphreys, Butler - Trevor Bowes, Officer - Oliver Brignall; Director/Designer - Antony McDonald, Conductor - Brad Cohen, Lighting Designer - Wolfgang Göbbel, Choreographer - Lucy Burge, Circus Skills Director - Joe Dieffenbacher, Prologue Translation - Helen Cooper, City of London Sinfonia.

Investec Opera Holland Park, South Kensington, London; Tuesday 17 th July, 2018.

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