REVIEW: Ariadne auf Naxos at Longborough Festival Opera
‘Captivating and glorious’ says reviewer Preston Witts
RICHARD STRAUSS’S opera Ariadne auf Naxos could easily be subtitled ‘A lighter look at Greek Tragedy’.
Along with his great librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss has managed to create a work of such artistic sweep that it embraces philosophy, the world of ancient myth and magic, and the very essence of drama itself. But all this is handled with such wit, charm and elegance that it is utterly captivating. And the music, of course, is glorious.
Given its current form as a venue for the performance of opera of the highest quality, Longborough in the Cotswolds is the perfect vehicle for the transmission of this rollercoaster of a music drama by Strauss (1864-1949), whose essays in Late Romanticism are at the top of the genre.
Strauss is renowned for his compositions for the soprano voice, and in Ariadne auf Naxos the three leading ladies (one of whom is dressed as a man!) are given some of the most sublime singing roles in all opera. Longborough is lucky that it has been able to call on the services of Helena Dix, Clare Presland and Robyn Allegra Parton to fulfil the demands made upon them by Strauss’s prolific pen.
Longborough is also fortunate to have on its books the Wagnerian specialist Anthony Negus, who is conducting Ariadne auf Naxos. Given the richness of Strauss’s orchestral textures, Mr Negus is ideal for the job. The vivacity of the production is down to the inspired directing of Alan Privett, and for the colourful on-stage setting we can thank designer Faye Bradley and lighting designer Ben Ormerod.
At the end of the day, however, the paramount requirement for the performance of a successful opera is superb singing with sympathetic orchestral accompaniment — and Longborough’s Ariadne auf Naxos has got these in full measure.
But what of the plot? Now there’s the question… Opera often demands a suspension of disbelief, but in the case of Ariadne auf Naxos we have one drama interposing itself upon another drama, to highly comic effect. And the comedy is all the more acute because it weaves the raucous iconoclasm of burlesque into the high-mindedness of Greek mythology.
In short, two groups of performers are preparing for an evening’s entertainment. One work is an opera, specially commissioned for the event, and the other is an irreverent and saucy burlesque with the sexy Zerbinetta (Robyn Allegra Parton) as its star.
The opera troupe and the composer (Clare Presland) are already astonished to discover that their performance of serious music — revolving around the myth of Ariadne abandoned on Naxos — is to be followed by the rather less-than-serious burlesque. They’re even more dismayed when they learn that both performances will have to take place on the same stage at the same time! Thus ends the Prologue, with a magnificent aria from Clare Presland, and the stage is then set for Part Two, The Opera.
This second and final section of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which the story of Ariadne unfolds, with the burlesque characters entering into it and trying to alter the stream of events, is a lush sequence of peerless vocal and instrumental music that is so spellbinding you can’t bear the thought of it ending.
Helena Dix as Ariadne has a very special gift — she’s even been described as the most exciting voice since that of her fellow Australian, the late Dame Joan Sutherland — and Robyn Allegra Parton is certainly a name to look out for. She has style, poise and an acting ability that allows her to perform lofty hauteur, high comedy and extravagant sexiness almost with the flick of an eyelash. She is also a coloratura soprano of outstanding quality; for one aria alone she earned a massive round of applause.
The final opera in Longborough’s 2018 season will be L’incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi. It opens on Saturday, 28th July, and ends on Thursday,2nd August.