Ariadne auf Naxos. Theatre Royal, Nottingham. 17 March 2023. 4****. William Ruff


Nottingham

Opera North/Gothenburg Opera (Ariadne auf Naxos)

Theatre Royal Nottingham

March 17 2023

4****

Review: William Ruff

@ReviewsGate

Strauss’s Ariadne may be bonkers but it’s beautiful too

Opera audiences are well-used to familiar stories being wrenched into different contexts and settings.  Carmen set in the American wild west; Verdi’s nuns turned into machine-gun-toting freedom fighters; Pagliacci set backstage in a costume store: that sort of thing.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t.  Opera North’s co-production with Gothenburg Opera of Ricard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos flies the action from the world of 18th century Viennese aristocracy and lands it in a 1950s Rome film studio.  And it works…or at least it works as well as this fairly barmy opera can.

The original story’s ‘richest man in Europe’ puts on an entertainment for his guests and, as things are running late, he dictates that both of the pieces (tragic opera/knockabout musical comedy) he has scheduled must be performed…at the same time.  Yes, that means both tragic and slapstick on stage together.  In Opera North’s/Gothenburg’s version the top man is turned into a film mogul…but the premise remains the same.

Strauss and his creative chums must have sat down and chuckled at what must have seemed at the same an hilarious idea: a sort of operatic ‘play that goes wrong’.  The new setting certainly has its plus points.  The set designers have done a great job filling the Prologue with period film equipment and the set teems with preening actors and temperamental creatives.  It all looks authentically impressive with lots of scope for satire about the seriousness with which everyone goes about creating something essentially ephemeral. 

After the interval we get the filming of this rather odd concoction: the serious opera of Ariadne, abandoned on her desert island, longing for the arrival of the god Hermes, the messenger of death.  Plus, of course, the arrival of the comedy troupe whose unlikely and incongruous entry is probably their funniest moment.  They intrude and they comment but your sense of humour would have to be more generous than mine to find them more than fleetingly amusing. 

There are good things to enjoy, however.  There are several juicy operatic roles on offer.  Strauss clearly took delight in portraying the haughty prima donna and Elizabeth Llewellyn seizes the vocal and physical opportunities with power and gusto.  David Butt Philip (Bacchus in the Nottingham performance) manages to be both pompous and impressive at the same time.  And then there’s Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, the comedian: her lengthy coloratura aria is a real show-stopper, her voice hopping from trill to trill and soaring into the vocal stratosphere.  It’s a large-cast production which, as so often with Opera North, is brought to life by sharply etched performances: minor roles as well as the main ones.  Wigmaker, dancing master, make-up artist, electrician, painter, various sponsors: these (and many more) make their impact as memorably as those of composer, music master, major-domo and others.

This is a very strong show visually with sets, costumes, lighting all doing their best to make the impossible seem credible.  Amongst the loudest cheers at the curtain call were those for conductor Antony Hermus and Opera North’s superb orchestra.

Cast & creative

The Orchestra and Chorus of Opera North

Hanna Hipp

COMPOSER

Elizabeth Llewellyn

PRIMA DONNA/ARIADNE

Ric Furman

TENOR/BACCHUS (EXC 17 MAR AND 24 MAR)

David Butt Philip

TENOR/BACCHUS (17 MAR AND 24 MAR)

Jennifer France

ZERBINETTA

Daniel Norman

DANCING MASTER

Dean Robinson

MUSIC MASTER

John Savournin

TRUFFALDINO/MAJOR-DOMO

Dominic Sedgwick

HARLEQUIN

Alex Banfield

SCARAMUCCIO

Adrian Dwyer

BRIGHELLA

Jeremy Peaker

WIG-MAKER

Frazer Scott

LACKEY

Daisy Brown

NAIAD

Laura Kelly-McInroy

DRYAD

Amy Freston

ECHO

Antony Hermus

CONDUCTOR

Rodula Gaitanou

DIRECTOR

George Souglides

SET AND COSTUME DESIGNER

Simon Corder

LIGHTING DESIGNER

Victoria Newlyn

CHOREOGRAPHER

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