Archive for October 8, 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on October 8, 2010 by telescoper

There are three operas in the current season from Welsh National Opera, and last night I went to see the final one of the set,   a revival of their 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss. It seems I saved the best until last! It was a wonderful evening, beautifully sung and imaginatively staged.

It’s a strange opera, consisting of two acts. The first is a prologue, set backstage during the preparations for  a musical performance commissioned by the “wealthiest man in Vienna”, a character who never actually makes an appearance but who communicates with the others through his Major-Domo (a speaking role, played by Eric Roberts).  The centrepiece of the performance is to be a new opera, the tragedy of Ariadne on the Island of Naxos, written by a gifted young composer (played in male drag by the lovely Sarah Connolly). Afraid that the opera might bore his guests, the patron decides to liven up the performance by adding a musical comedy act, in the style of the Commedia dell’Arte, and a firework display. While the opera singers argue with assorted clowns and grotesques of the rival Harlequinade about who should perform first, news comes down from on high that in order that the fireworks are not delayed, instead of performing one after the other, the two performances will be merged. The upshot of this is that instead of being marooned on a desert island with only three nymphs for company, the lovelorn Ariadne has to put up with the presence of the entire cast of a comic burlesque.

In case you hadn’t figured it out, this is a comedy. It’s very German, of course, in the sense that it’s not all that funny really, but the set up does pay off in the second act, wherein the comedy and tragedy (or, more precisely, an Opera Buffa and an Opera Seria) are played together. It’s a bit like the “play-within-a-play” in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

First Ariadne (played by Orla Boylan) appears on her island, singing of her desire for death after the loss of her beloved Theseus. Then the clowns interrupt the performance and try to cheer her up, by suggesting she finds another man. Then the comics take over the show entirely, at least for a while. Finally Ariadne reappears and is met by Bacchus, the god of wine, who brings much-needed consolation. The two sing a rapturous duet and eventually ascend to heaven, in a style reminiscent of Close Encounters, while the clowns look on from the wings.

It’s all a bit daft, of course, but the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy is unexpectedly moving. It works largely because of the sheer beauty of Strauss’ music, especially in the second act. People who don’t like opera probably don’t understand how it’s possibly to fall into such a stylised form of drama in which people sing to each other rather than speak, but somehow – at least for me – that’s what happens. Something draws you into the drama and you forget the artificiality of the performance. That it works in this opera is especially surprising because it’s  a second-order opera; the audience knows it’s an opera, but within the opera there’s another opera. Nevertheless, the sensuously romantic score still pulls you in, especially in the scenes with Ariadne. Strauss was always a superb writer for the female voice, and this opera is no exception.

Last night’s performance was lovely, with Sarah Connolly and   Orla Boylan both oustanding. Boyland in particular was simply superb, a true dramatic soprano with a voice of great lyrical beauty as well as  thrilling power when needed. I was expecting Sarah Connolly to be great, and she didn’t disappoint at all, but Orla Boylan was even better. 10/10.

The only part I didn’t like was the Wig-Maker, a crude gay stereotype mincing ostentatiously around the stage during the Prologue. Very naff.

Oh, and Eric Roberts as the Major-Domo seemed to get a bit confused in a couple of places and repeated his lines, sending the surtitle machine into chaos for a bit. Even though the performance was in German I didn’t really look at the surtitles. When you wear varifocals it’s quite difficult to read them without missing out on what’s happening on stage.

These were only minor blemishes, however, and overall it was a wonderful evening. I’ll add a word for the orchestra too, which played beautifully under the baton of Lothar Koenigs.

There’s only one other performance of this in Cardiff, tomorrow night (Saturday 9th October). Do go and see it if you can!