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.

Why Billy Graham’s legacy is complex

News appeared this afternoon that Billy Graham had died at the age of 99. The significance of this moment is clear – he was someone who lived an extraordinary long life, met the great and the good of all the world, changed the lives of countless thousands who were not the great and the good and helped to shape the world that we live in today.

My own feelings on hearing that he died are complex. After all, I took part in one of his great stadium campaigns. I sang in a choir of a thousand voices in a football stadium in 1985, invited my friends (some of whom had their lives changed by that encounter) and prayed like mad for the success of the venture. It was a defining moment for so many people who were involved in it. What’s more I know people whose lives were changed at the Billy Graham Glasgow Crusade in 1955 in the Kelvin Hall.

The methods and the message didn’t change that much over the years.

Very many of those of us who remember those events will be reluctant to simply dismiss what Billy Graham did. We were there. We know the good intentions and the good will that were exemplified by the preacher from the USA.

However, those who believe that Jesus is just about to come back and sort everything out for good don’t always do terribly well at thinking about how we should live in this world. (And that’s a long-standing thing – just look at St Paul and his ideas about marriage). Billy Graham was one such. Believing that Jesus would come back soon and sort everything out he didn’t appear much interested in the world being sorted out by human endeavour. Thus, he had a conflicted relationship with the Civil Rights movement in the USA, chummed up with the likes of Richard Nixon (with whom he was caught out making anti-semitic remarks) and was completely on the wrong side of God’s loving relationship with humanity in his attitude to human sexuality.

I’ve seen a number of responses to his death today from those remembering all these things who paint him as a demon. I don’t believe he was, however mistaken I think he was about some things. In many ways, I think he was sincere but wrong. I don’t think he was a demon because I remember him. I was there.

I’ve also seen responses from those idolising him including some from people responding in public on behalf of organisations whose own private lives were significantly deleteriously affected by views which Billy Graham shared so powerfully. Very obviously, I don’t think Billy Graham an angel either.

Lives are complex and so are legacies. Today on the news of his death I find myself thinking of those who were given purpose, energy and life in all its fullness by an extraordinary missionary preacher and I thank God for that.

I also find myself thinking that the America in which Donald Trump can triumph is part of that legacy too.

White evangelicalism in the USA was undoubtedly bolstered by Billy Graham’s life and work. The lack of condemnation from Billy Graham of the antics of some of those (including his children) who emboldened that community even further travelling on his coattails is a stark reminder that his faith made him able sometimes to proclaim his gospel clearly but see the affairs of the world more dimly.

Notwithstanding Trumpism, Billy Graham’s ideas were perhaps more successful in the church than in the world. Historically the church shifted over the 20th century and the Evangelicalism of Billy Graham became a far more significant factor in church life than ever it would have been without him.

It was an extraordinary life. It was a life that benefited me and it was a life that gave credence to ideas which harm me.

Such is human complexity.

May he rest in peace and rise in glory.

To some surprises.