**** (4 stars)
This is an extraordinary work, a mixture of deep tragedy and burlesque, which Scottish Opera have made into an absorbing evening’s entertainment, which received prolonged and enthusiastic applause from a thoroughly satisfied audience.
The Prologue sets the scene: two very different groups have been booked to provide after-dinner entertainment for ‘the richest man in the city’ – an opera company which is to give the première of Ariadne auf Naxos, a Greek tragedy, and a burlesque troupe, led by Zerbinetta, who are to provide a very different entertainment. At the rich man’s whim, the two groups are told by the Party Planner that they have to perform their pieces simultaneously and be finished before the 9pm firework display begins. The composer of the opera is distraught at what she sees as the profanation of her work: in this she is ably supported by the Professor of Composition, who also does his best to assuage the fears of the singers that they will lost their best arias. The burlesque troupe and their Producer are more pragmatic: having been given the outline plot of the tragedy, they see their task as simply inserting their prepared routines within the opera.
In the Opera, Ariadne’s grief at Theseus’ desertion of her makes her long for death to bring an end to her sorrow and pain. The nymphs Naiad, Dryad, and Echo attempt to console her. Into this deep mourning irrupt Zerbinetta and her four male colleagues – Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldino and Brighella – who try hard but are unable to cheer her up. Zerbinetta offers her own philosophy – all women suffer this sorrow: being alive to each new love is far more satisfying. Ariadne, sunk in her grief, is inconsolable, until the god Bacchus appears, fleeing the enchantress Circe. Ariadne believes him to be the messenger of death: he fears she is an enchantress – but falls in love with her and transforms her death wish into a desire for union with him. Curtain.
This production had the Prologue in English (a new translation by Helen Cooper) and the Opera in the original German. This suited the wildly differing natures of the two: the hustle and bustle, in-fighting, scheming, rivalries, egos and histrionics of the performers and the Composer were instantly and hilariously obvious, while the German (with supertitles) set the Opera at a slight distance, and lent it a solemn dignity – at least until the burlesque troupe appeared!
Ariadne (Mardi Byers) poured out her misery in richly flowing but interminable streams, and was lovingly ministered to by a charming trio of nymphs (Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall). Zerbinetta’s colleagues (Alex Otterburn, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Daniel Norman and Lancelot Nomura) sang magnificently and displayed well-honed circus skills, juggling, sword-swallowing and plate-spinning, and impressive acrobatics and dancing. Zerbinetta herself was for me (and possibly for Strauss) the star of the show – this was an entrancing performance from Jennifer France, whose burlesque skills included a slow strip and ‘song from a swing’, all the while singing the impossibly high notes with which she won my heart in Scottish Opera’s recent production of Jonathan Dove’s Flight. In the Prologue, Julia Sporsén’s Composer was the perfect manifestation of a neurotic, self-centred, melodramatic and immensely talented young musician: while Thomas Allen’s Professor of Composition gave a masterclass to anyone who aspires to be on stage – subtle, understated, with tiny, telling detail and an intense concentration on whoever was singing to him. Eleanor Bron’s spoken cameo as the welly-wearing Party Planner was equally delightful: it was a pleasing touch that these two, and the burlesque Producer, peeped through the rear doors of the stage to see just how this hotchpotch production turned out in the end.
Visually the production was excellent, with two exceptions. The Prologue took place in the grounds of a large mansion, with boardwalks set on the soggy lawns – just like the Edinburgh Book Festival! – where caravans in varying degrees of dilapidation were parked: the Opera took place in the deserted dining room, where the remains of an elegant meal were still on the table – but there was also a sunken area into which Ariadne could quite literally decline and ignore the burlesque troupe’s shenanigans. The costumes were mostly splendid: the three nymphs in striking black and white evening gowns, and the burlesque players in assorted bizarre costumes. Zerbinetta spent the Prologue in basque, suspenders and a transparent negligée then appeared in the Opera in full (male) evening dress before removing this to reveal a stunning crimson and gold costume in which she hurled notes into the stratosphere. So why, oh why, did Ariadne have an unbelievably unflattering pale blue coverall which she later removed to reveal an unremarkable long black dress: and even more inexplicably, why did Bacchus appear in a drab grey coat and trousers, looking more like a bank manager than a god?? He (Dutch tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee) sang superbly but showed little interest in Ariadne, preferring to stare at the deserted dinner table, and only turning to face her when it was his turn to sing…
The opera contrasts two opinions: that there is only one, all-consuming love, or that there are a lot more fish in the sea and fun to be had with them. It also tried to make the point that only with a man can you find bliss and be at peace – so it was immensely satisfying that at the final curtain Zerbinetta gave way to the inclination she had shown in the Prologue and left Harlequin for the Composer!
Scottish Opera Presents: Ariadne auf Naxos Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, Run Ended
Review by Mary Woodward