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Opera North’s Ariadne auf Naxos – Leeds Grand Theatre

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

Composer: Richard Strauss

Director: Rodula Gaitanou

Conductor: Antony Hermus

Opera North’s wonderful Winter season came to a triumphant end with a remarkable production of a remarkable opera. Many of the audience (your reviewer included), having never seenAriadne auf Naxos, found the programme synopsis somewhat confusing but, as so often with opera, it all came out a great deal clearer on stage.

As conceived by librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl, “the richest man in Vienna” has commissioned an entertainment for his dinner guests: an opera seria about Ariadne on the island of Naxos and her rescue by the god Bacchus and a semi-improvised entertainment by Zerbinetta’scommedia dell’arte troupe. On the evening there is a change of plan: to finish in time for the firework display, the two pieces must be performed simultaneously!

A 45-minute prologue, transferred by Rodula Gaitanou to 1950s Italy and Cinecitta, with concomitant fun with the apparatus of cinema, is full of backstage bickering: the Tenor falls out with the Wigmaker, the Prima Donna flounces dramatically, the Music Master tries in vain to calm the Composer’s artistic temperament. Only Zerbinetta’s troupe, athletically striking comical poses, is immune from this, remaining maddeningly sunny throughout.

Many of the minor parts enjoy their moment in the spotlight: Dean Robinson, rational and serious as the Music Master, Daniel Norman, flippantly inclined to belong to the Zerbinettista wing of proceedings, John Savournin, resorting ultimately to a megaphone as the Major Domo. Zerbinetta (Jennifer France), the incarnation of high spirits, has an alternative version of the story of Ariadne: never mind being faithful to one man, wait for the next to come along. The Composer is smitten by Zerbinetta, but his devotion to high art remains. The programme refers to the Composer as “one of the great mezzo soprano roles”, yet it doesn’t last until the opera proper. Hanna Hipp, beautifully focussed vocally, hyper-active physically, is perfect casting – and Gaitanou finds a way for her to continue after the interval, silent, but significant.

For the opera Ariadne is perched, unmoving, on a rock as a trio of nymphs comments on her state. Daisy Brown, Laura Kelly-McInroy and Amy Freston’s voices blend perfectly, even if their arm movements irritate after a while. Elizabeth Llewellyn, a tempestuous Prima Donna, now laments her fate, unmoving, her gloriously produced lower register leading seamlessly to the agonised dignity of her higher notes as she laments the loss of Theseus.

Zerbinetta’s troupe feel it their duty to cheer her up, but the antics of Dominic Sedgwick – afflicted by love for Zerbinetta as Harlequin -, John Savournin, Alex Banfield and Adrian Dwyer produce nothing more than an irritated “go away” gesture from the afflicted Ariadne, even as they delight the audience. Zerbinetta’s aria, Grossmachtige Prinzessin, proposes a very different view from a very different soprano, its crazy coloratura negotiated with relish by the splendid Jennifer France.

It’s only with the arrival of Bacchus (Ric Furman, the previously self-important Tenor, now a heroic god) that Zerbinetta’s viewpoint prevails and pragmatism merges with romantic lyricism as the two move from misunderstandings to a fervent expression of love.

Gaitanou’s production, previously seen at Gothenburg Opera, links all the elements stylishly, George Souglides adds rudimentary sets and wonderfully imaginative costumes and Victoria Newlyn choreographs the moves of Zerbinetta’s troupe with wit and an air of improvisation. Above all, Antony Hermus’ conducting, as always, radiates commitment and energy.

Touring until 24th March 2023.

The Reviews Hub Score

Glorious confusion

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The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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