Ariadne Auf Naxos: An Opera North and Göteborg Opera Tour De Force

'Deeply rewarding and thought-provoking, and a fantastic night at the Opera'
February 21, 2023

It’s a moment in time in the 1950’s. We are in a film studio similar to the Cinecittà studio in Rome, used by auteur director Federico Fellini. We’re surrounded by the hubbub and freneticism of the film industry as performers and creatives cross paths. This is Rodula Gaitanou’s production of Ariadne Auf Naxos, that opened at Leeds Grand Theatre on Saturday night.

It is here we find an earnest and high-minded Composer, played with conviction by Hanna Hipp, a character determined to bring high art to the studio sponsor, who is demanding, that  two projects, a burlesque comedy, and the Opera Ariadne Auf Naxos, be performed simultaneously, due to financial constraints. 

The Composer, who may bean echo of Strauss himself, becomes rattled, desperately trying to wrangle the works together, as the cameras and the crew are abuzz over the changing desires of the studio’s executives. The Prima Donna and Tenor suggest cuts to the irrespective parts, while Zerbinetta and her burlesque comedy troupe are all too ready to ‘cheer up’ the character of Ariadne at any suitable opportunity in the production. Richard Strauss’ music and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto are masterful, knowing how to captivate us with operative beauty and comedy moment by moment.

Jennifer France plays the coquettish Zerbinetta of the comedy troupe, with joyous gusto and skill. Her brilliant “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”, brought the first night audience to spontaneous applause. And whilst Zerbinetta flirts with the comedians in her troupe, played Truffaldino, (John Savournin), Harlequin (Dominic Sedgwick), Scaramuccio (Alex Banfield) and Brighella (AdrianDwyer), Zerbinetta’s flirtations are juxtaposed powerfully with the long, sonorous pleas for love and death, sung masterfully by Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne.

Now Ariadne, is rightly upset. She has been ghosted by Theseus, the Athenian prince, who after offering to marry her, celebrates a little too hard in Naxos, then sets sail for home, forgetting his bride-to-be. When Ariadne wakes, she finds her lover gone and her heart is shattered. In her grief, she pines resolutely for death. While Zerbinetta’s comic troupe tries valiantly to lighten the mood, Ariadne is unmoved by their efforts. Three nymphs appear (Daisy Brown, Laura Kelly-McInroy and Amy Freston) heralding the  arrival of Bacchus (Ric Furman), who descends in a golden chariot, with all the golden locks, tailored suit, and golden shoes that any girl could hope for. While Bacchus initially mistakes Ariadne for the enchantress Circe, as she mistakes him for Hermes, the two eventually fall in love and fireworks abound.

And just in case you might think good old Theseus escaped from his amorous misdealing’s, just pay attention to the black flag that flies above Ariadne on her rock. It changes to one of white, perhaps signifying the next tragedy that befalls Theseus and his father.

By the time the director calls to wrap the filming, and the last embers of fireworks have died away, all is well again, as all the metatheatrical relationships both on screen and off have been transformed.

The concept of transformation is one that runs deeply through the opera. Beginning with the transformation of the high and low arts into something that is unique to both, the drive of Zerbinetta to always welcome someone new into her life, the transformation of Ariadne and Bacchus’ mistaken identities into love, the transformation of the Composer’s artistic frustration into creative satisfaction, the transformation of Zerbinetta and the Composers relationship to something meaningful, to the musical transformation of the respective character motif’s. The characters themselves speak of transformation throughout the libretto, it is a powerful force that underpins the narrative.

This is the first ever production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne Auf Naxos by Opera North. As a co-production with Gothenburg Opera this is an exciting show of strength for international collaborations, let’s hope there are more of these ahead for the company. Gaitanou’s outstanding production is a rich and satisfying opera, that rewards close attention and repeated viewings. Antony Hermus conducts with  finesse, and the playing is at its best.

With a complex score and meta-theatrical elements, those who are open to engaging with this work will find a deeply rewarding and thought-provoking experience, and a fantastic night at the Opera.

At Leeds Grand Theatre on 21 and 24 February and 1 March. Further performances in Salford, Nottingham, Newcastle, and Hull.

All Images: Göteborg Opera/Mats Bäcker