Wednesday 18 July 2018

An impressive achievement: Ariadne auf Naxos, a Richard Strauss first from Opera Holland Park

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Laura Zigmantaite, Elizabeth Cragg, Lucy Hall - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Laura Zigmantaite, Elizabeth Cragg, Lucy Hall
Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Richard Strauss Ariadne auf Naxos; Mardi Byers, Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Julia Sporsen, Jennifer France, dir: Anthony McDonald, City of London Sinfonia, cond: Brad Cohen Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 17 July 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Holland Park's first Richard Strauss opera, in Anthony McDonald's intelligently update production, provides glorious rewards for Strauss lovers

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Julia Sporsén, Jennifer France  - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Julia Sporsén, Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Opera Holland Park is known for its exploration of unusual repertoire (this season's rarity is Mascagni's Isabeau) but last night, Tuesday 17 July 2018 the company's explorations moved in a different direction when it staged its first opera by Richard Strauss. Anthony McDonald's production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos is shared with Scottish Opera where it opened earlier this year. Mardi Byers was the Prima Donna/Ariadne, with Kor-Jan Dusseljee as the Tenor/Bacchus, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Julia Sporsen as the Composer, Alex Otterburn as Harlequin, Daniel Norman as Scaramuccio, Lancelot Nomura as Truffaldino, Elgan Llyr Thomas as Brighella, Eleanor Bron as the Party Planner (the Major Domo), Stephen Gadd as the Professor of Composition (the Music Master), Jamie MacDougall as the Producer (the Dancing Master), Elizabeth Cragg as the Naiad, Laura Zigmantaite as the Dryad, Lucy Hall as Echo, Thomas Humphreys as the Wig Master, Trevor Bowes as the Butler and Oliver Brignall as an Officer. Anthony McDonald also designed, with lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel, choreography by Lucy Burge, and Joe Dieffenbacher was the Circus Skills Director. The prologue was sung in Helen Cooper's English translation, with the opera in the second half in the original German.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Mardi Byers  - Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
Kor-Jan Dusseljee, Mardi Byers
Opera Holland Park (Photo Ali Wright)
McDonald's production wore its joint Scottish Opera/Opera Holland Park origins proudly, Helen Cooper's version of the prologue placed the action firmly in Glasgow with a liberal sprinkling of Scots demotic, yet the back drop was firmly Holland Park House (in Scotland re-created in a back-drop). The prologue featured a number of caravans as artist dressing rooms, their tattiness suggesting a penny-pinching aspect to 'the richest man in Glagow'. For the second half these moved to the side and the central feature was an abandoned grand dinner table, laid out of silver-ware and china, with Ariadne as a Miss Havisham-like eternal bride waiting for death.

The prologue was firmly in the present, with Eleanor Bron's party planner (the major-domo figure) a firm yet discreetly managerial figure, used to dealing with egos. The Opera Holland Park auditorium is not kind to spoken voices, and Bron had to work hard to make her text count yet everything came over, just. The prologue can be difficult to bring off, seeming inconsequential if all the elements are not in place. Here, comedy and seriousness were finely balanced with Julia Sporsen's composer being the passionate centre of everything. It was lovely to have the role sung by a soprano for once (the original composer was Lotte Lehmann), and it benefited from Sporsen's gloriously ringing top. Here McDonald had introduced another twist with the composer being a woman rather than travesty role. Sporsen was intense and committed, giving us a wonderfully vibrant line, and she was supported by some brilliantly etched characterful portraits from the rest of the cast. Certainly, Sporsen is a soprano who I want to hear in more Strauss, having heard her as the composer I now want to hear her as Octavian.

Stephen Gadd was beautifully dead-pan as the professor of composition (the music-master figure), claming the waters of his students ego and the opening scene with Bron's party planner, mixing sung and spoken was beautifully done, making it register far more than in some productions. Gadd was balanced by Jamie MacDougall's characterful producer (the dancing master). All the other figures gave us some delightful comic cameos; this is an opera where the evening's diva and divo have to demonstrate something of a comic flair, and both Mardi Byers and Kor-Jan Dusseljee did. Jennifer France was a delight as Zerbinetta and her flirtation with the composer was a touching moment.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Alex Otterburn, Daniel Norman, Lancelot Nomura  - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Alex Otterburn, Daniel Norman, Lancelot Nomura
Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
For the opera itself, the focus falls far more on the principals, particularly here as the theatre's lack of stage machinery meant that McDonald did not offer any sort of transformation at the end, relying simply on Wolfgang Goebbel's lighting, and the talents of his singers. It paid off, and we even had the fireworks at the end, after the music was over!

Mardi Byers made a regal Ariadne, from the outset entirely in love with easeful death. Byers' voice has the dramatic strength and flexibility required from the role, and she gave us some strongly shaped phrases albeit with a hint of unevenness. She was wonderfully dead-pan when faced with the commedia dell'arte troupe, whilst both she and Kor-Jan Dusseljee brought the evening to a thrilling close with the final duet.

Bacchus is something of an ungrateful role, requiring firm heroism and stamina, Dusseljee had both and sang with an admirably firm tone throughout, though inclined to be somewhat penetrating in the upper register. He matched Byers beautifully in the duet, and as the focus of the production narrowed to them they certainly held our attention.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Jennifer France - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
But it has to be admitted that, as in many other productions, it was Zerbinetta who caught our hearts. Jennifer France gave a sparkingly account of her showpiece aria, perhaps the very top notes were a little squeezed but this was coloratura of real character and combined with a winning personality. She was ably supported by the four commedia dell'arte men, Alex Otterburn, Daniel Norman, Lancelot Nomura and Elgan Llyr Williams, and you rather felt sorry of Otterburn's fine Harlequin who thinks his flirtation with France's Zerbinetta will have the expected conclusion. Though updated to the present, McDonald wisely did not attempt anything too modish for the commedia dell'arte action and the combination of vaudeville and circus skills worked wonderfully well in creating a contrast to the stateliness of the other half of the stage, whilst also seeming to comment on Ariadne's state. And the commedia dell'arte troupe really did entertain us royally.

Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall as Naiad, Dryad and Echo formed a finely expressive trio, and they had a stronger dramatic presence than in some productions, her as elegantly clad bridesmaids.

In the pit, Brad Cohen drew finely expressive playing from the City of London Sinfonia, and despite the wide open spaces of the auditorium they drew us in so that there was still and intimate feel to the playing. Cohen and his players clearly relished the orchestration, highlighting the Strauss's vivid use of orchestral colours including of course the piano and the famous harmonium.

Whilst Ariadne auf Naxos might be one of Strauss's more popular operas, it is not an easy one to bring off. The piece is about the varied nature of attraction, with Zerbinetta's pragmatic approach contrasting with Ariadne's intensity, here McDonald's intelligent updating brought dividends and he managed to make both halves cohere without over doing things. And by having Zerbinetta herself unsure of her attractions (usually it is simply a case of a flirtation with Harlequin), McDonald brought an interesting depth to it especially as the composer reappeared at the end to take Zerbinetta's attention from Harlequin.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - The Prologue - Opera Holland Park (Photo Robert Workman)
McDonald and Cohen were blessed with a fine cast so that each of the contrasting roles was in good balance. No performance of this opera is perfect (though I have happy memories of Janet Baker and Helge Dernesch at Scottish Opera in the 1970s!), but this came pretty close. As a first attempt at a Richard Strauss opera this was an impressive achievement and I do hope that the house does more.

Elsewhere on this blog:
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  • More than just Vox patris coelestis: a new William Mundy disc from Edinburgh (★★★★)  - CD review
  • 75th birthday celebrations: Robin Holloway's chamber music on Sheva Contemporary  (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Striking a chord: Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as a musical at the Young Vic  - (★★★★)  musical theatre review
  • Romantic exploration: Rheinberger and Scholz piano concertos from Simon Callaghan (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Inner demons - Mozart's Idomeneo at the Buxton Festival  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Rip-roaring rarity: Verdi's Alzira in a rare outing at the Buxton International Festival (★★★★) - Opera review
  • Changing the discourse, soprano Madeleine Pierard & director Sophie Gilpin talk about SWAP'ra - Interview
  • Garsington premiere: David Sawer & Rory Mullarkey's The Skating Rink (★★★★) - Opera review
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