The north of Norway is sadly not spoilt when it comes to opera: the Arctic Philharmonic, the regional orchestra, only puts on one production per year. Despite the scarcity, the orchestra’s recent production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos proved that high quality opera is also possible north of the Arctic Circle. This production marked Katharina Jakhelln Semb’s directing debut, but also her final production as Director of Opera at the Arctic Philharmonic, a final goodbye before leaving her position at the end of the season.

Lise Davidsen (Prima Donna) and Adrian Angelico (The Composer) © Erika Hebbert
Lise Davidsen (Prima Donna) and Adrian Angelico (The Composer)
© Erika Hebbert

Semb set the Prologue in a 1920s English manor house, amid a profusion of white suits and cable-knit vests. To be sure, Susanne Münzner’s all-white sets and costumes lent a Wodehousian edge to the chaotic preamble. I couldn’t help but think of Bertie Wooster as Peter Wulfsberg Moen’s Dancing Master rolled around on stage in wheelie shoes. The choice to have Nils Johnson’s Major-Domo speak in the local dialect further added to the comedy, his slightly-too-sensible matter-of-factness underlining the absurdities of the sung German.

The theme of knitting ran through the production, from the first moments of the Prologue onwards. Lise Davidsen’s Prima Donna was never far away from a pair of knitting needles – on the surface, a reference to the ball of yarn Ariadne gives to Theseus, but Semb also seemed out to invoke Norwegian operatic history: famed Norwegian dramatic soprano Kirsten Flagstad was a regular dressing room knitter, and even made her professional debut whilst knitting. With the programme interview hailing Davidsen the “new Flagstad”, it was not difficult to surmise what the director was trying to get at.

The Opera itself proved more of a mystery than the straightforward Prologue. Julia Iwaszkiewicz’s Naiad, Siv Iren Misund’s Dryad and Marianne Folkestad Jahren’s Echo sang the nymphs’ ensembles beautifully, but I struggled to understand why they were living in an oversized poppy bud. Semb’s penchant for Flagstad references continued: during “Es gibt ein Reich”, Ariadne was brandishing her comically oversized knitting needle like a Valkyrie’s spear, looking not unlike a scene from a handicraft-centred production of Wagner’s Ring.

Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) © Erika Hebbert
Lise Davidsen (Ariadne)
© Erika Hebbert

This production also marked the operatic debut of theatre group Wakka Wakka, who added puppets to Zerbinetta’s troupe of comic actors. The two giant hands and massive woman’s head certainly added to the chaos, but the puppets were not on stage enough to make a considerable impact. Still, the Opera had inspired moments, like Bacchus arriving in a champagne coup, presumably after an extended bout of drunken island hopping.

Although the production had its less fortunate moments, the singing was surprisingly excellent, especially as this production marked the role debuts for all but one of the singers. As the Composer, Adrian Angelico took a few minutes to find his bearings, but he sang with an intense idealism. His voice is ideally suited for Strauss’ trouser roles, with a burnished chest register and a gleaming top. As Bacchus, Thomas Ruud had been announced as ill, but there was little sign of it in his performance. He got through the gruellingly high part, albeit loudly.

Zerbinetta’s troupe of comedians was surprisingly well cast, with tenor Petter Wulfsberg Moen’s lithe Brighella standing out, after his just-camp-enough Wigmaker in the Prologue. Although handsomely sung, Gunnar Andor Nieland’s Lackey/Wigmaker/Harlequin could have used clearer German diction. As Zerbinetta, Sara Hershkowitz sang with remarkable agility and command of her top register, combined with a touching sincerity in her duet with the Composer. Although “Großmächtige Prinzessin” was captivatingly sung, it suffered from too little direction, with nothing much happening until sudden orgasmic spasms during the last salvo of high notes.

<i>Ariadne auf Naxos</i> © Erika Hebbert
Ariadne auf Naxos
© Erika Hebbert

Making her much-anticipated debut as Ariadne, Davidsen triumphed. She towered a head above everyone else in the Prologue and proved herself a fine comic actress, but she truly shone in the Opera. From her first pained cry as Ariadne, the voice blossomed into breath-taking beauty, with a creamy bottom register and glowing top. The ecstatic climax of “Es gibt ein Reich” had my jaw on the floor, and she proved equally rapturous in the final duet.

Conductor Christian Kluxen set the overture off briskly, but soon settled. He handled the fast-paced comedy of the Prologue well, but the duet between Composer and Zerbinetta felt disjointed – not helped by Semb’s static direction. While the orchestra, especially the woodwinds, sounded great – a few flubbed trumpet notes aside – the euphoria of the final duet came too late, only settling in to the required fullness of sound in the last five minutes or so.

A few directorial missteps aside, Katharina Jakhelln Semb’s Ariadne auf Naxos proved a perfectly competent production, but the singing made it extraordinary. Audiences have much to look forward to this summer, when Lise Davidsen will be making her Glyndebourne debut in this role.