In the programme the director, Radula Gaitanou, says she wishes that opera were more like football, with the audience not knowing the outcome until the end. Well, she certainly walked the walk in this production, turning it into a game of two halves and, not until the penalty shoot-out at the end, do we find out who wins. It obviously went to extra time as the second half was quite a bit longer than the first and no injuries were sustained.
At kick-off it seemed that this was going to be another of the more bonkers operas but, surprisingly, due to its construction, the second half tied everything up so it was only semi-bonkers. And I loved it!
The work was written by Richard Strauss, the Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001 A Space Odyssey) chap, not the waltz guy, in 1916, with Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This production changes the original version by moving things forward to the 1950s and coming up with a storyline which sees two sets of theatricals arrive simultaneously on a film set, each prepared to shoot their work. They learn that the backers have cut back on the funding and now the film will be a mash-up of the two pieces. This might not be so bad if they had both been superhero films or romcoms, but one is a serious opera about isolation and loneliness, set on a desert island where Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover, Theseus, and awaits death. The other is a burlesque with a striptease dancer and a troupe of comedic musicians. The Composer is set the task of rewriting the film to combine both elements and, by the way, it has to be done by nine o’clock that evening as the Producer has organised a celebratory firework display for that time. At first there is universal rebellion which is only quelled when they are told that they won’t get paid if it doesn’t happen.
Each faction tries to persuade the composer to shorten their rival’s part but it is eventually decided that, as Ariadne is cast away in despair on the island, the burlesquers’ job should be to cheer her up.
The second half consists of the shooting of the film and is introduced by three nymphs, looking like The Supremes would if they has been members of the Addams Family. The comic band do their thing to lighten Ariadne’s mood, but she is inconsolable reclining on top of a rock, even after Zerbinetta, the dancer, has given her the benefit of her experience of handling men.
Instead of Hermes, the Herald of the Gods and the one who guides people into the afterlife, Ariadne is visited by Bacchus, a young god who arrives having escaped from the enchantress Circe. Anyone who has ordered goods on-line will know that that Hermes failing to show up is not uncommon. The two hit it off and sail away into the sunset, which is not a bad result at all for Ariadne as Bacchus is, amongst other things, the god of winemaking, festivity, fertility and theatre. Meanwhile Zerbinetta (Jennifer France) has to choose between two men in her life, her ex, Harlequin, and the Composer. Needless to say, there are fireworks at the appointed hour but I won’t spoil the result by telling you who eventually scores!
The handling of this contrived tale was done so well that it didn’t seem that weird at the end and I found it very enjoyable. There were humorous dances and routines by the troupe and some incredible operatic arias from Ariadne, sung by Elizabeth Llewellyn.
As usual, all the singing was superb, with a glaring exception, in that one of the characters spoke his lines rather than sung them. I must say that this was the only time I could concentrate on the action rather than keep looking at the titles. Another feature of the opera is that the operatic part of the film is sung in German whereas the burlesque part is in English.
The Orchestra of Opera North, conducted by Antony Hermus was its usual impeccable self.
The set was very inventive with a large rock to one side of the stage leaving the rest to be utilised by the dancers. Victoria Newlyn’s choreography was an essential element of the opera and executed with great humour both by the burlesque troupe, Dominic Sedgewick, John Savournin, Alex Banfield and Adrian Dwyer, and the Dancing master, Daniel Norman.
I have no hesitation in recommending this opera to those of you who are contemplating taking advantage of the Try it ON scheme from Opera North, as it gives a taste of both the eccentric elements of opera and the more conventional, thus ensuring that you don’t get bored with either, in fact, you will probably love it all. For details of the scheme and to learn about what Opera North do for newbies, click on https://www.operanorth.co.uk/your-visit/new-to-opera/
Ariadne Auf Naxos continues at Leeds Grand Theatre on selected dates until 24th March. It then goes on tour to The Lowry at Salford Quays before transferring to The Theatre Royal, Nottingham and The Theatre Royal, Newcastle.
For more details and to get your tickets please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/whats-on/ariadne-auf-naxos/
All images supplied by Opera North