Review – Ariadne auf Naxos – Scottish Opera

Scottish Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos is an odd combination of bawdy romp and serious opera – as the composer intended. Strauss could not have hoped for better singers than Scottish Opera have assembled for this co-production with Opera Holland Park. However, seriously flawed orchestral playing marred an otherwise interesting production.

Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange beast from the start. It is neither a conventional love story nor a conventional tragedy. The first half of the piece, the Prologue, sees two rival troupes of performers turn up at a country house where they have been engaged to put on their shows for the entertainment of a bigwig. Following a lot of banter between the high culture opera troupe and, in this production, a lowbrow burlesque ensemble, the bigwig decides that he would like both groups to perform their shows together. The resulting performance forms the second half of the evening after the interval. This rather clever conceit sounds as though it will result in the operatic equivalent of Noises Off but the resultant muddle is never quite as funny as one might hope.

The desire to make people laugh may be responsible for the decision by director, Anthony McDonald to have the bickering of the first half sung in English and the second, operatic half in German. This doesn’t quite come off. It isn’t particularly funny in either language. Much more assured though was his playing around with the gender of one of the characters. The role of the Composer is usually a trouser role – a female singer playing a man’s part. In this production, the Composer is a female singer presenting as a woman. This just feels like common sense. However, the added twist is that the Composer is destined to fall in love with burlesque thesp Zerbinetta. The addition of lingering lesbian kisses to the opera did start to make the characters more interesting than they otherwise might seem.

So much for the flimsy plot – what about the singing? Here there is much to praise. This was a tight collection of perfectly matched singers. Stealing the show in every sense was Jennifer France as Zerbinetta. Her long aria in the second half of the evening was fabulously ethereal. Well, not just ethereal but ethereally sung whilst performing a delicious striptease. It felt as though everyone in the theatre was on the edges of their seats as she transformed from coquettish black tie evening drag into a kind of camp Wonder Woman figure complete with feathers, on a swing that appeared from no-where. This was powerfully directed and astonishingly performed.

Mardi Byers, as Ariadne also sang extremely well. However, it remains the case that the burlesque side of the plot made a lot more sense than the Ariadne opera-within-an-opera was ever going to do.

All in all, there was nothing to complain about in terms of the singing. However, what was happening in the pit was far less secure. For once there were no problems of balance. There were however, huge problems of intonation, particularly amongst the woodwind section. The orchestra at Scottish Opera productions sometimes feels as though it is under-rehearsed on opening nights. On this occasion one sometimes started to wonder whether they had in fact met up before the production.

The orchestral playing simply wasn’t a match for the singing. There’s no point gathering such an esteemed group of singers together if they are not matched by better instrumental playing than was heard at this performance. Conductor, Brad Cohen presided over playing that simply felt scruffy.

Ariadne auf Naxos is an odd piece of work and is itself very much a mixed bag. So was this production. There was lots to like but it was only good in parts. The parts that were good were exquisite. In the end, it was all worth it for the striptease.
Rating: ★★★☆☆
This review was first published by Scene Alba Magazine.

Comments

  1. Kristin says:

    When I saw it performed years ago in Seattle I was sad that the composer hadn’t put together a rip-roaring duet for the two female leaders of the troupe.

  2. Meg Rosenfeld says:

    I’m a total moron when it comes to opera, and I understand how a not-quite-up-to-snuff orchestra could drag a performance down, but nonetheless it sounds like a great deal of fun for both the performers and the audience.

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