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.

Mikado – Scottish Opera – Review

Rating: ★★★☆☆

This review appeared first on Opera Britannia

There’s a lot to like about this new production of The Mikado but unfortunately there’s quite a lot about it to cause concern too. There seems little doubt that it will bring in the crowds throughout a relatively long tour which goes to Belfast, Newcastle, Bristol and Southampton as well as Scottish Opera’s usual venues. With any luck, it might bed in fairly soon and be ready for most of those who see it.

Let us focus on the positives first. This is a stunningly designed show. Designer Dick Bird has pulled off a show which instantly looks alive and vibrant. Quite where we were is something that I never managed to work out. That Japan might be one of the possibilities should not be surprising. However, the ladies of the chorus were wearing some rather splendid Victorian bloomers under their kimonos, whilst their gentlemen counterparts appeared to have escaped from a cross-dressing themed Busby Berkley musical that never got made. We sometimes seemed to be a the end of Victorian pier but it was a bit of a surprise when the Mikado himself arrived on a naval ship that looked like it was out to catch the Pirates of Penzance.

However, let us be postmodern about this. The costumes and the set were executed with considerable aplomb. The sheer vibrancy of the colours on stage seeming to cock a snook at anyone who fondly thinks of Jonathan Miller’s much more washed-out Mikado of lasting ENO success.

There was quite a lot of stage business going on at the beginning during the overture. Ko-Ko appeared ready to do a magic trick, cutting an apparent volunteer from the audience into pieces. The subsequently dismembered head, when the trick went wrong, then joining many others sitting on platters who introduced themselves as the Gentlemen of Japan. It was clever and as a bonus distracted considerably from a rather lumpy overture, taken (like a lot of the evening) at a rather turgid pace. However, once we’d got over the notion that the Gentlemen of Japan were all decapitated heads who had retained the ability to sing, they just disappeared along with the idea of Ko-Ko’s magic tricks. It was symptomatic of ideas being presented visually extremely well but which didn’t really feel as though they had been carried through to their logical conclusion.

There’s quite a lot to like about the singing. Nicholas Sherratt had a gentle take on Nanki-Poo – a lyrical performance which did him credit. Rebecca Bottone’s Yum-Yum matched him well. There was an effortlessness about their duets which was very pleasing. The three little maids from school were completed with Sioned Gewn Davies’s Pitti-Sing and Emma Kerr’s Peep-Bo. Ms Davies’s voice was perhaps just a little too strong to blend well with Ms Bottone but the three of them looked the part and had lots of energy.

Andrew Shore’s Pooh Bah was deliciously pompous. His voice was deliciously rich too. Ben McAteer, fresh from Scottish Opera’s stunning recent new commission The Devil Inside, demonstrated that he could hold his own in a very different genre. Here he was an absurdly camp comic Pish-Tush who was considerably more funny than most absurdly camp comic turns usually are. The Mikado himself, Stephen Richardson had a magisterial richness in his singing and when he tried to tell us that the punishment must fit the crime, he did so in a stately and very courtly manner.

Generally speaking it was a vocally strong cast. Only Rebecca de Pont Davies gave cause for concern. Though her Katisha was brilliantly alarming, she was struggling again and again to keep the lower notes of her register in tune and one had to rely on the surtitles far more often than should have been necessary.

By a long way, the figure on stage with the greatest experience of Gilbert and Sullivan was Richard Suart as Ko-Ko and that experience showed. He used plenty of rubato to play around with his lines which added interesting character to the singing. The Little List was magnificently rewritten and was laugh-out-loud funny. A particularly good joke about the Prime Minister’s pig-gate fiasco was made all the more funny for me as I seemed to be sitting next to the only person in the theatre who didn’t get it and didn’t find it amusing at all.

The use of a ventriloquist’s dummy in the shape of a crow during Tit Willow was utterly inspired.

The only thing that jarred about Suart’s performance was his spoken accent which seemed to be cockney with a side order of Australian strine. It was also not the only odd accent on the stage, Yum-Yum sounded terribly strangulated when she was speaking though beautifully fluid when singing. And I didn’t like Nanki-Poo’s “home counties with a slight speech impediment” accent all. Fortunately, neither did Nicholas Sherratt, as he dropped it more and more as the evening went on.

The odd accents and the strange lurches from one genre to another (Katisha arrived on The Great Wave off Kanagawa but ended up chasing Ko-Ko through some kind of horror movie) meant that one was never sure where one was. Indeed, I realised about half way through that I’d not heard such strange and inconsistent accents on an opera stage since the last time Scottish Opera put on a Savoy Opera – Pirates of Penzance with the same director Martin Lloyd-Evans two years ago. Perhaps they are his trademark but they added nothing constructive to the show.

Down in the pit, slapdash work was being made of Sullivan’s score. Conductor Derek Clark was very obviously struggling to keep the singers and the orchestra together. This was particularly so during “To Sit In Solemn Silence in A Dull Dark Dock” and the finale which was in grave danger of unravelling completely.

Overall, one was left with the impression of a show which had a lot of good ideas washing around, not all of which were followed through and which was simply not ready for performance. No doubt things will tighten up a bit on tour but for Glasgow audiences it felt very much like a rehearsal for the real thing.

Rating: ★★★☆☆

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