Garsington Opera at Wormsley – Strauss’s Ariadne with Natalya Romaniw, Young Woo Kim, Jennifer France & Polly Leech; directed by Bruno Ravella; conducted by Mark Wigglesworth


Ariadne auf Naxos, Op.60 – Opera in one Act with Prologue to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal [sung in German with English surtitles]

Prima Donna / Ariadne – Natalya Romaniw
Tenor / Bacchus – Young Woo Kim
Zerbinetta – Jennifer France
Composer – Polly Leech
Music Master – William Dazeley
Dancing Master – John Graham-Hall
Harlequin – Marcus Farnsworth
Brighella – Innocent Masuku
Truffaldino – Ossian Huskinson
Scaramuccio – Richard Pinkstone
Naiad – Claire Lees
Dryad – Siân Griffiths
Echo – Harriet Eyley
The Major-Domo – Walter van Dyk
Lackey – Daniel Vening
Officer – Zahid Siddiqui
Wigmaker – Jonathan Eyres

Philharmonia Orchestra
Mark Wigglesworth

Bruno Ravella – Director
Giles Cadle – Designer
Malcolm Rippeth – Lighting
Carmine De Amicis – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 18 June, 2023
Venue: Wormsley, Buckinghamshire, UK

Few musical dramatists were quite so alert to the complexities and subtleties of Mozart’s great Italian operas with Lorenzo da Ponte as Richard Strauss at the turn of the twentieth-century when that repertoire tended to be regarded as frivolous and trivial. Strauss and his distinguished librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, like their eighteenth-century forbears, sought to fuse serious and comic operatic elements and lovingly parody them in their opera about mounting an opera, just as Mozart had already done briefly and overtly in his occasional piece Der Schauspieldirektor. Like that work, Ariadne auf Naxos also depicts the egos of the artists involved as well as the frustrations and practical difficulties of sustaining such a project at the whim and changeable desires of the wealthy patron who has commissioned it (a potent reminder in this unedifying era of Arts Council funding cuts of the unavoidable fact that those with control of the purse strings call the shots when it comes to deciding where resources are allocated and who gets to create).

Bruno Ravella’s production is effective in not imposing any grand or contrarian ideas upon the scenario, but rather in bringing out with a light touch and gentle irony both the conventions of stagecraft which Strauss meant to convey and the nature of the particular opera on the myth of Ariadne being prepared in this work. For the Prologue a bare space with piano serves as the atrium to the actors’ green rooms in two lines – the upper series of doors for the participants in the serious opera, the row on the ground floor for those of the comic masquerade, presumably denoting the high and low status typically accorded to those art forms respectively, at least by practitioners of the former such as the Composer.

Those doors recede and are veiled for the staging of the Opera, Ariadne, itself, leaving a central empty space in which a park bench unceremoniously serves as the place where the eponymous character languishes, having been abandoned by Theseus and left on the island of Naxos, awaiting death – the small metal plaque on the bench no doubt sardonically recalling the memory of somebody else who has already passed on. The masquerade actors comically conjure up the atmosphere of an English seaside resort, rather than a Mediterranean coastline, as they ride in on a rowing boat, with such things as a stick of rock and a starfish; Bacchus slithers on wearily across the floor of the stage as though a sea creature, instead of bounding out of the sky, or his chariot as in the famous painting by Titian.

Having escaped the snare of the siren Circe, Bacchus then enacts his own literal game of encirclement and flirtation with Ariadne as they revolve around the stage in their initial dialogue of misunderstanding about the other’s intentions, seemingly unable to reach each other. Contrasting with the busy and self-important, but inconsequential, hustle and bustle of the actors through the array of doors in their hair curlers and dressing gowns during the Prologue, there is an apt sense of catharsis and resolution after Bacchus and Ariadne’s rapturous Tristan-like duet under a starry canopy at the climax of the Opera, as they disappear through the one opening in that vault, having achieved a sense of ecstasy and resignation – in deeper awareness of their humanity after the experience of their serious drama in interaction with the sharp, irreverent wit of the harlequinade.

Natalya Romaniw effects a creamy-voiced indifference and torpor as the sorrowing Ariadne, before soaring to heights of elation with firm resolve and heft, as convincing as any great Straussian soprano of the past in the role. Young Woo Kim is even more stentorian in the tenor part of Bacchus, bursting in on his scenes with an eager vocal force. Zerbinetta is rendered almost as earnestly by Jennifer France, certainly capturing all the notes of her frisky music but a touch unyielding to convey her capricious temper completely. Claire Lees, Siân Griffiths and Harriet Eyley blend wonderfully well as three nymphs, cooing and coaxing like sassy Rhinemaidens. The quartet of masquerade actors also meld successfully, but with more characterful spontaneity, as suits what are supposed to be the improvised contributions to the drama.

In the Prologue Polly Leech eloquently voices the Composer’s anxieties in her negotiations with William Dazeley’s solicitous Music Master, John Graham-Hall’s bluff Dancing Master, and an admirably unruffled Walter van Dyk in the spoken role of the Major-Domo. They are well served in their characterisation of the drama by the jittering, tense accompaniment of the Philharmonia Orchestra under Mark Wigglesworth, the instruments in Strauss’s comparatively reduced scoring here adding their febrile comments to the restive dialogue. The second half opens with pointedly weak and wiry strings as the Opera proper gets off to an uncertain start after the high drama with which the Prologue ends, marking the transition to Wigglesworth’s masterfully paced, fluid reading of the actors’ performance of the portentous Greek myth. He modulates tempo and mood sympathetically so that even the interruptions of the masquerade troupe and Zerbinetta feel a natural part of Ariadne’s story, rightly synthesising the serious and comic elements into a deeper whole. Ravella’s slickly simple vision of the drama on stage proves an ideal receptacle for the complex interplay of human emotions and behaviour, dynamically realised by the musicians. It deftly reveals that, through the artifice of Strauss and Hofmannthal’s theatrical concoction, very real passions play out in this engaging interpretation of a fascinating composition.

Further performances to July 21

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