Ariadne auf Naxos is quite a tricky opera to get right. It’s in two distinct parts: first the prologue, which is very comedic consisting of two different companies of burlesque dancers and opera singers preparing to perform, followed by the second act, which is the opera itself. This production is set in a big house in Glasgow, with the casts of the two companies wandering around the stage, often literally bumping into each other.
In charge of it all is the party planner, played very well by famous actress and comedienne, Eleanor Bron, last seen in The Archers! She orchestrates the evening with a very strange collection of characters, including burlesque dancers, an aged professor, played by eminent baritone, Thomas Allen, and the producer, played by Alasdair Elliott. The set for the Prologue, designed by Antony McDonald, is the grounds of a great Glasgow mansion, with three caravans as dressing rooms for the various players: it works really well. The humour comes out clearly, as it is spoken and sung in English.
In the second half, the opera itself, based on the story of Ariadne, is sung in German, but using the very good surtitles it is easy to follow. The music by Strauss is gorgeous, and beautifully played by a large Scottish Opera Orchestra. It is very well conducted by Brad Cohen, who although making his debut for Scottish Opera, is very experienced in opera all over the world, and currently artistic director of West Australian Opera.
The singing is of a very high standard throughout, and the principals are excellent. The composer, traditionally a “trouser” role, is played straight by Swedish soprano, Julia Sporsén, which makes for an interesting love scene with Zerbinetta the burlesque dancer, superbly played by Jennifer France, a former Scottish Opera emerging artist. They are ably backed up by Dutch tenor, Kor-Jan Dusseljee as Bacchus, and Mardi Byers as Ariadne, the latter supported by a beautifully dressed trio of sirens sung by Elizabeth Cragg, Lucy Hall and Laura Zigmantaitė .
This production by Scottish Opera is better than the recent one at Covent Garden. It balances the humour of the prologue with the beauty of the opera, and in the end opera is the winner, just as it should be. The production will now travel to Opera Holland Park, where London opera audiences can make their own judgements, but based on tonight’s showing, they are in for a treat.