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Royal Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
Strauss's comical tragic opera
The Royal Opera House's current production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos has been out on tour as a concert performance at Birmingham's Symphony Hall.

And while it may not look as glorious as the fully staged version, it is every bit as engaging with some top class performances from a cast including Karita Mattila, Roberto Sacca and Sir Thomas Allen.

Royal Opera, Ariadne auf Naxos
Karita Mattila is Ariadne in the Royal Opera production of Ariadne auf Naxos

At first glance the story of Ariadne auf Naxos may not appear to lend itself to comedy. Ariadne, the daughter of the King of Crete, betrays her family for love of the Athenian warrior Theseus who is to be sacrificed to the bull-man monster the Minotaur. After providing Theseus with a sword and a ball of thread to ensure he can find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth, Ariadne then escapes with the hero.

But all falls apart and Theseus abandons Ariadne on Naxos, where desperate and destitute, she mourns her lost love.

Strauss wraps this sorry tale up in comedy by creating an opera within an opera and sets the scene of a company performing Ariadne auf Naxos at an after dinner party.

All is immediately thrown into disarray when the company learn they are to share the performance space with an opera buffa company whose sole aim is to make the audience laugh. How can such a tragic opera feature comedy, they ask.

The early angst is brilliantly portrayed in this production by a devastated Composer played by Ruxandra Donose who fears all her hard work will be ruined by inane jokes by a group of foolish players.

Sir Thomas Allen is highly amusing as the Music Master who, like an avuncular uncle, attempts to keep the peace and ensure the show goes on while also sharing a good amount of eye-rolling and eyebrow-raising with the audience. What a man has to bear to earn a living, he seems to say.

Leading the comedy cast is Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta who is happy to flirt with anyone if it helps her achieve her aim. We see the masterstroke of Strauss in Zerbinetta because, while she appears a superficial butterfly, her words belie a deeper desire to be truly loved and to love in return. In this way she creates an unexpected parallel with Ariadne.

Karita Mattila is the Prima Donna engaged to play Ariadne. She is imperious and supercilious in the first act but really comes into her own in the second as she takes on the role of the abandoned Ariadne. Here is a woman singing her soul out as she shares her loneliness and begs to die.

She finally finds solace with the arrival on Naxos of the god Bacchus who immediately falls for Ariadne and promises her an end to her agony with a new union. And, as Ariadne welcomes a new beginning, the wry Zerbinetta comments that it isn't so hard after all to change one man for another.

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House is conducted with plenty of enthusiasm by Sit Antonio Pappano who teases out the subtleties of Strauss's music but also ensures gusto when needed.
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Why? Tragedy and comedy combine in Strauss's opera
Phone: 0121 345 0601
Where: Birmingham Symphony Hall
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