Love, Isolation and Fireworks: Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park

Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos.

Der Haushofmeister – Eleanor Bron
Der Musiklehrer – Stephen Gadd
Der Komponist – Julia Sporsén
Primadonna / Ariadne – Mardi Byers
Der Tenor / Bacchus – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Der Offizier – Oliver Brignall
Der Tanzmeister – Jamie MacDougall
Der Perückenmacher – Thomas Humphreys
Lakai – Trevor Bowes
Zerbinetta – Jennifer France
Harlekin – Alex Otterburn
Scaramuccio – Daniel Norman
Truffaldin – Lancelot Nomura
Brighella – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
Najade – Elizabeth Cragg
Dryade – Laura Zigmantaite
Echo – Lucy Hall

City of London Sinfonia / Brad Cohen.
Stage director – Antony McDonald.

Opera Holland Park, London, England.  Wednesday, July 25th, 2018.

Summer can really seem like the perfect time for Ariadne auf Naxos and with its strong ensemble focus, reduced orchestral forces and platform for strong female characters, it provides an ideal showcase for Opera Holland Park.  Tonight was a warm evening in the park and the temperature on stage was certainly equally high.  Performances at Holland Park can occasionally be disturbed by signs of city life – people playing outside, aircraft on final approach to Heathrow.  Fortunately, the peacocks behaved themselves, and didn’t disturb the show, and the only extraneous noise heard within the tent was the brief barking of a hound showing approval and the occasional ringing cellphone belonging to audience members.

Daniel Norman as Scaramuccio, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Lancelot Nomura as Truffaldino and Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Brighella in Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park © Robert Workman

Antony McDonald’s staging, a coproduction with Scottish Opera where it was seen earlier this year, relocates the action to Glasgow and the manor of the richest man of that city.  The prologue is performed in English (translated and adapted by Helen Cooper) while the opera remains in German. The Haushofmeister becomes a Party Planner, played by octogenarian actress Eleanor Bron in an impeccable Glaswegian accent, and the Komponist is very much a woman, with the sung text referring to her as ‘she’.  The frontage of Holland House, which takes up the back of the stage, is used to provide the setting of the manor, while three trailers provide accommodations for the tenor, prima donna and Zerbinetta’s troupe respectively.  McDonald’s production works very well.  It’s fluent with believable characters.  The high jinks of Zerbinetta’s troupe in the opera work equally well, with the cast demonstrating some impressive circus skills.  It made for an interesting comparison with Katie Mitchell’s deeply flawed staging for Aix a few weeks ago.  Whereas Mitchell appeared not to trust the work, her cast or the audience, smothering the piece in layers of extraneous action and new dialogue, McDonald takes a much more intimate approach.  That said, in a way it feels that he is perhaps somewhat too intimate.  As Zerbinetta delivers her big number, Ariadne leaves the stage until she returns for the final duet.  In a way, it felt somewhat lazy as if McDonald, rather than having the two different women engage with each other, solved the problem by simply removing one of them.  It meant that when Zerbinetta sang ‘es scheint die Dame und ich, sprechen verschiedene Sprachen’, there was no evidence that they had actually tried to communicate in the first place.  That said, and without giving spoilers, McDonald provided a magical twist to the closing tableau to accompany those glorious closing measures, leaving a big, uplifted smile on the face of this spectator.

Julia Sporsén as the Komponist and Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park © Robert Workman

Musically, things were somewhat mixed on the whole.  Julia Sporsén was a livewire Komponistin.  Her steely soprano soared ecstatically in her fabulous ode and the frisson of chemistry that she had with Jennifer France’s Zerbinetta in her ‘Augenblick ist wenig’ was moving.  France gave us a terrifically acted Zerbinetta.  A total firecracker, she dominated the stage whenever she appeared on it.  She sang her big number with nonchalant abandon, the high E full and bright, even if not quite à point.  I’m also not quite convinced that she is the owner of a genuine trill.  Still, France’s stage presence was absolutely magnetic.  Kor-Jan Dusseljee sang Bacchus in a robust, bright and focused tenor.  His isn’t the most glamourous voice to have essayed this music but he had staying power to share, made it to the end and certainly sounded as if he could do it all again immediately.  Mardi Byers’ Ariadne was somewhat more problematic.  The voice isn’t unattractive with a full and rich middle.  It is, however, short on top and Byers was frequently under the note – and similarly frequently departed from the tempo set in the pit.  Her ‘Schönes war’ was choppily phrased, the ecstatic soaring required both there and in ‘es gibt ein Reich’ remaining rather earthbound.  She did, though, sing with generosity and warmth.

Kor-Jan Dusseljee as The Tenor/Bacchus and Mardi Byers as The Prima Donna/Ariadne in Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park © Ali Wright

In the remainder of the cast we had an efficient Musiklehrer from Stephen Gadd and an attractive trio of Nymphs.  Zerbinetta’s troupe was well taken, with a masculine Harlekin from Alex Otterburn who sang his music in a handsome baritone with attractive sheen.  The ensemble was capped by Elgan Llŷr Thomas’ Brighella, revealing an attractive and lyrically-deployed tenor.  Bron’s Haushofmeister was delightfully witty, although I did wonder whether she might have benefitted from being amplified for the benefit of those at the back of the theatre – even from my seat towards the front, she wasn’t ideally audible.  Brad Cohen led an unobtrusive reading that was fluently paced.  There were still issues of coordination between stage and pit tonight, at this the penultimate performance of the run.  The City of London Sinfonia played well for him, string intonation was accurate and the brass on their best behaviour.  I could see no German coach credited in the program book and it did sound as if some of the cast might have benefitted from more coaching in that respect.

Jennifer France as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park © Robert Workman

This was an evening that most certainly left a smile on the face and left the audience uplifted.  I must admit, it didn’t always make for comfortable listening given the issues in the title role, but the casting on the whole was certainly honourable – and in the case of Zerbinetta and her troupe much more than that.  Indeed, there was so much that was enjoyable here – McDonald’s staging, despite some reservations, presented the work clearly and logically and, as I mentioned above, led to a wonderfully heartening closing tableau.  Certainly, this was a performance that had much to offer.

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