A Sparkling Ariadne auf Naxos at Opera Holland Park

19/07/2018

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Richard Strauss: Soloists, City of London Sinfonia / Brad Cohen (conductor). Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London, 17.7.2018. (CC)

Jennifer France’s Zerbinetta (c) Robert Workman

R. Strauss – Ariadne auf Naxos (Prologue in English, transl. Helen Cooper; Opera in German)

Production:

Director & Designer – Antony McDonald
Lighting – Wolfgang Göbbel
Choreographer – Lucy Burge
Circus Skills Director – Joe Dieffenbacher

Cast:

The Prima Donna/Ariadne – Mardi Byers
The Tenor/Bacchus – Kor-Jan Dusseljee
Zerbinetta – Jennifer France
Harlequin – Alex Otterburn
Scaramuccio – Daniel Norman
Truffaldino – Lancelot Nomura
Brighella – Elgan Llŷr Thomas
The Party Planner – Eleanor Bron
The Professor of Composition – Stephen Gadd
The Composer – Julia Sporsén
The Producer – Jamie MacDougall
Naiad – Elizabeth Cragg
Dryad – Laura Zigmantaite
Echo – Lucy Hall
Wig Master – Thomas Humphreys
Butler – Trevor Bowes
Officer – Oliver Brignall

After a wonderful excursion into the lesser-known waters of Isabeau, it was time for, on paper at least, core repertory. The last Ariadne auf Naxos I covered was in 2015 at the Royal Opera when Karita Mattila outshone everyone (review). Opera Holland Park’s Ariadne held its head up high musically and presented at least two/three stars as opposed to Matilla’s one at the Garden: Julia Sporsén’s Composer; Mardi Byers’ Ariadne; and Jennifer France’s stunning, overwhelmingly faultless Zerbinetta. This, it should be noted, is the first time Opera Holland Park has tackled a Richard Strauss opera; it is presented in conjunction with Scottish Opera, where it was performed in March this year (review).

First, the production and that rather strange bit above about languages. The Prologue is indeed in English; the main body of the opera, the Ariadne story comingled with the burlesque, in German. (When the Composer does quote a phrase in German in the Prologue, ‘Du Knabe, du Kind’, no translation is offered). The Prologue is, in fairness, wordy and there is justification for the change, particularly as the setting is moved from Vienna to that of ‘the richest man in Glasgow’, complete with a wide Glaswegian accent from ‘Party Planner’ Eleanor Bron (the Major Domo in Strauss’ original, here sadly not miked and so a real strain to hear, never mind follow). In Antony McDonald’s staging, three rather dilapidated caravans dominate the stage; this is a more modern circus troupe. Moving the place to Glasgow, and a stately home (this staging was first seen in Scotland) is a snug fit in Kensington, with the stone back of Holland House offering the perfect backdrop. The Composer is sung brilliantly by soprano Julia Sporsén – and how refreshing to hear it sung by a soprano, especially one with such a gleaming high register (intended by Strauss, but tradition has meant a shift to a mezzo). Here it is a female composer sung by a woman dressed as a man (you follow?: Strauss’ original had a man sung by a woman) which certainly added a frisson to the Composer/Zerbinetta liaison.

The Major Domo is not the only character name change: the ‘Professor of Composition’ is more usually the Music Master; The Producer is usually the Dancing Master.

The swift pace of the Prologue makes huge demands on the conductor, and Brad Cohen was permanently attentive. The orchestra rose to each challenge, especially the wind and the excellent horns; the orchestral textures of ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ were absolutely lovely; the close of the opera was positively aglow. Even after commenting on the upshift in orchestral caliber experienced in Isabeau, this was exceptional.

Helen Cooper’s English translation is as deft as the singing and playing: the Music Master’s ‘Johnny Foreigner Eurotrash’ perhaps has particular relevance in these times of Euro-uncertainty.

The music unfurls itself in the opera proper. Here phrases elongate, vocal pyrotechnics, particularly from Zerbinetta, move up a notch or ten and we enter the world of Greek Gods and Goddesses, expertly spiced with the cabaret troupe, and with Zerbinetta in a costume that would not look out of place in the musical Chicago. An abandoned dinner table is the main prop, the caravans having been moved to the stage sides. Three nymphs (Naiad, Dryad and Echo) are formed by the superbly chosen trio of Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall. Mardi Byers was a strong Ariadne, broken at the beginning of the opera, radiant by the end, her journey from the one place to the other spellbinding. Her Bacchus, who has to wait so long to enter, is taken by the silver fox Dutch tenor Kor-Jan Dusseljee, rather stiff in stage presence but vocally firm and expressive. All this is interspersed by the comedic antics of the splendid Harlequin (Alex Otterburn in fine, commanding form), Scaramuccio (Daniel Norman), Truffaldino (Lancelot Nomura) and Brighella (Elgan Llŷr Thomas). And yes, there is some cavorting with plates in a nod to the Greekness of the original.

All of which leaves the astonishing Zerbinetta. Jennifer France has sung this role at Nederlandse Reisopera (Dutch Touring Opera) as well as in the recent Scottish Opera run. And how that immersion shows. Her command of the music means that she can negotiate the felicities of the staging with ease; but it was the vocal fireworks that were most memorable. She commands the stage with her mesmerizing presence; her sound enchants the ear.

A magnificent evening, sculpted with real flair by Brad Cohen.

What next, then, an OHP Ring? (peacocks instead of ravens, perhaps). Who knows, but on present evidence, more Strauss would most definitely be welcome.

Colin Clarke

For more about OHP click here.

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