The recent LSO concert at the Edinburgh Festival whetted our appetite with Le Bourgeois gentilhome, Strauss’ incidental music for Molière’s play, setting the scene for Ariadne auf Naxos complete with Prologue where passions run wild as high art collides with harlequinade. Performed here semi-staged in the festival’s open-sided giant pavilion in leafy Inverleith, the work – with small orchestra forces and no chorus – was a wise choice for these times. The strong cast included international singers and significant role debuts for Dorothea Röschmann as Ariadne, David Butt Philip as Bacchus and Catriona Morison as the Composer. On a perfect summer evening with just a whisper of a breeze, it was as if magic was in the air as Lothar Koenigs and the RSNO caught the moment, the rich strings taking hold as the overture began.

Catriona Morison, David Butt Philip and Dorothea Röschmann
© Matt Beech

We never meet “the richest man in Vienna” but he sends his Major-Domo to give the running order of the evening – the serious opera, the commedia dell’arte entertainment and then the fireworks at 9pm. Strauss invites opera audiences to witness the backstage business of massaging egos and settling spats so Thomas Quasthoff took delight in upping the fun, announcing that time was short and everyone had to perform simultaneously. Martin Gantner’s steady baritone generally calmed things as the Music Master, and there were delicious knockabout vignettes from high and low art with Peter Bronder as the Dancing Master and Joshua Hopkins as Harlequin and not least from Jonathan McGovern as an outraged Wigmaker in his pink jacket. But the Prologue belongs to the Composer and Catriona Morison, performing in her home town, completely nailed it, owning the stage as she impetuously strutted and fretted to and fro carrying her outsize score. Morison truly inhabited the role, originally intended for soprano, her dusky rich timbre opening out powerfully at the top culminating in a tremendous “Sein wir wieder gut!” in praise of music.   

As Zerbinetta, Brenda Rae started a little cautiously but was sounder as she flirted with the Composer, suggesting that Ariadne simply needed another lover, but revealing her own insecurities. Later she blossomed in her signature coloratura aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, her vocal pyrotechnics earning deserved applause. With Ariadne intent on heading to the realm of death, welcome comic relief was provided by Hopkins’ Harlequin, Alexander Sprague’s Scaramuccio, Barnaby Rae’s Truffaldino and Sunnyboy Dladla’s Brighella, who had enormous fun with six foot inflatable palm trees! But although they entertained and sang splendidly, they failed to amuse our heroine.

Brenda Rae
© Matt Beech

It is the opera seria that wins in the end. Röschmann’s first Ariadne was a triumph, her Prima Donna role in the Prologue giving little away as she emerged in the main opera as her full character with rusty coloured scarf in tow, her commanding voice, dramatic focus and sighing cellos setting the solemn tone. The three nymphs Liv Redpath, Claire Barnett-Jones and Soroya Mafi, with floating choreography, were particularly finely sung, a true delight as their ensemble soulfully described Ariadne’s weeping, but perking up when Bacchus’ ship was seen approaching.

Bacchus is a tough role, a new character appearing right at the end of the opera. He has to turn Ariadne’s determined yearning for death into optimistic longing for love. Butt Philip was on top form, his heroic radiant tenor a thrilling match for Röschmann as the chemistry took hold, and the characters circled each other with increasing fascination in a passionate finale.

The RSNO is not normally an opera band so the players clearly relished the chance to get their teeth into Strauss’ lively score as Lothar Koenigs took charge, a compelling combination with double woodwind, reduced strings and brass, two harps, percussion, piano, celesta and harmonium. The players painted pictures with lush swoops and memorable solos, their sound liquid gold at times as Koenigs maintained momentum, glancing over his shoulders to watch his singers at key moments.

Lothar Koenigs conducts the RSNO
© Matt Beech

Louisa Muller directed her players well in a cramped space with few props, and although there was a bit of unavoidable stand and deliver singing, there was enough movement to keep things from going flat. Costumes were modern day with a few twists of red for the comedians and a scarlet dress for Zerbinetta. Distancing rules made physical touching almost impossible, with tricky moments at the curtain call. 

This was my third event in the outdoor pavilion, and it perhaps revealed the challenges of sound enhancement more than most as there were odd gaps and moments of strange echo. The EIF has done a spectacular job of adapting to circumstances, but coming away, I thought that this special performance deserved the acoustic of the Usher Hall.