EIF: Ariadne Auf Naxos

Edinburgh Academy Junior School

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos may well be the unintended outcome of a failed theatrical idea by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. It was intended as a brief postlude to Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of a Molière play. But there’s little doubt that what it eventually became – a prologue and opera combined into one remarkable piece of convoluted dialectic whimsy – is entertainment well worth having.

For someone of Strauss’ infinite compositional versatility, the challenge must have been irresistible, scintillatingly evident in this restless cinematic two-hour score, a seething mass of heated musical imagery in which heaving Wagnerian catharses seamlessly switch to witty, chattering parody in the blink of an eye. With a storyline designed to incite the cultural tensions between high opera and burlesque-style, you can hear what he was getting at.

It’s also an opera that requires complex and careful casting, which this high-energy concert-style staging by Louise Muller fully achieves. The 17-strong vocal line-up has the advantage of a virtuoso edge-of-the-seat RSNO performance to support them, under the alert musical stewardship of German conductor, Lothar Koenigs. 

It also has Dorothea Röschmann as Ariadne, a diva in the best sense, whose biggest moment arrives, as with David Butt Philip’s imposing Bacchus, in the euphoric closing moments of the opera. In a fit of burgeoning ecstasy she unleashes the full welter of her limitless instrument.

That all seems a world away from the domestic hustle and bustle of the opening Prologue, anchored by Thomas Quasthoff’s (spoken) Major Domo, and where Catriona Morison puts in one of her finest performances as the precious Composer, while around her the commedia dell’arte figures wreak havoc, not least Brenda Rae as the flighty, rather sexy, Zerbinetta. Her male sidekicks do a nifty song and dance routine with inflatable palm trees, and generally make mischief. Peter Bronder cuts a scampish Dancing Master to Martin Gantner’s common sense Music Master.

If the shadow of Wagner envelops the very end, there’s also an earlier hint of it in the three nymphs – Liv Redpath, Claire Barnett-Jones and Soraya Mafi – who, like Rhine maidens reborn, relate Ariadne’s fate as the duel-fuelled entertainment finally gathers steam. This is also where Rae’s Zerbinetta gets to exercise her piercing coloratura.

It’s a riveting show that fires on every cylinder.
Ken Walton

Further performances, Fri 27 Aug & Sun 29 Aug