Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, in its second version, was premiered in Vienna on 4 October 1916, and the Nederlandse Reisopera started its season with a tribute truly worthy of its centennial. Their new production, by tenor turned director Laurence Dale, is a feast for both eye and ear.

Martin Omrich (Tenor), Karin Strobos (Composer) and Soojin Moon (Prima Donna) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Martin Omrich (Tenor), Karin Strobos (Composer) and Soojin Moon (Prima Donna)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

For all its supposed popularity, staged productions of Ariadne seem to be relatively infrequent. Perhaps this is due to its odd structure as an opera within an opera. In the Prologue, we meet the Composer. Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera he has just written for “the richest man in Vienna” is about to be performed. He learns to his utmost despair that his patron has decided that his masterpiece will have to share the stage with a vulgar group of commedia dell’arte comedians, hired just in case the opera would bore the audience. There is worse to come: as the dinner drags on, the Major-Domo announces that his Lordship decided that both performances must happen simultaneously. No discussion possible – after all, his Lordship is the one paying. The second part is the opera itself, which the comedians, led by the perky Zerbinetta, interrupt by trying to cheer up the abandoned Ariadne. The opera ends as Adriane is being comforted by the arrival of the god Bacchus who takes her as his consort.

Soojin Moon (Ariadne) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Soojin Moon (Ariadne)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
The themes of the value of art versus entertainment and the influence of patronage on creative expression, central to this piece, are ones that certainly feel close to home for many opera companies nowadays. However, rather than focusing on what divides, Dale aptly chooses to concentrate on what unites and redeems: music and love. It is love that makes the Composer,  who usually all but disappears at the end of the Prologue, stay throughout the opera. He is there, in a corner of the stage, from which he keenly follows the performance of  Zerbinetta, with whom he has fallen in love, in spite of their differences.

Contrasts in the music between the conversation-like Prologue and the Opera are visually emulated on stage by the lavish sets and costumes by Gary McCann. The richest man in Vienna's house is a relatively subdued nouveau riche affair, very Versace-esque with all its white antique statues dripping with gold. It all becomes far grander during the opera itself, which is performed in front of a backdrop of stunning video images of seascapes. The rocky island of Naxos, covered with the bodies of dancers choreographed by Sjoerd Vreugdenhil is reminiscent of an Italian Baroque fountain.

Musically, things are just as enjoyable. In the pit, Marcus Merkel conducted the North Netherlands Orchestra in a performance that expertly balances finesse and liveliness. The musicians were audibly inspired and the woodwinds especially played exquisitely.

Rafal Fingerlos (Harlequin) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Rafal Fingerlos (Harlequin)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

The secondary roles are all well cast, with particularly strong performances from Rafael Fingerlos’ bullish Harlequin, Stefan Heidemann’s articulate Music Master, Leonie van Rheden’s Dryad and Hildur Hafstad’s Echo. The tenor originally cast to sing the Tenor/Bacchus in this production, Martin Homrich, was unfortunately indisposed on Thursday and the evening’s performance was saved by Michael Putsch, flown in in extremis to sing from a box at the right of the pit while his sick colleague acted on stage. This is never an ideal situation but, in the circumstances, Mr Putsch acquitted himself well, albeit with limited power, in some of the most treacherous music ever written for a tenor.

But Ariadne is one of those odes to the soprano voice that Strauss excels in and the three main protagonists did not disappoint. The high-lying tessitura of the Composer is well-suited to Dutch mezzo-soprano Karin Strobos, who visibly relished the lyrical passages and portrayed very convincingly an endearing and juvenile Composer. Arguably a tad too subdued as the Prima Donna during the Prologue, Soojin Moon later turned into a superb Ariadne, unveiling a lush timbre with contrasting colours and a particularly beautiful plum-coloured low range. She makes good use of the text too, especially in her haunting “Es gibt ein Reich”.

Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) © Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera
Jennifer France (Zerbinetta)
© Marco Borggreve | Nederlandse Reisopera

Even more impressive was Jennifer France’s unforgettable Zerbinetta. From the moment the young British soprano stepped onto the stage, her assured singing and admirable acting skills  drew the audience’s attention. She sang the fiendish coloratura of "Großmächtige Prinzessin" with starry aplomb, top notes ringing to the rafters, the voice never thinning or discolouring, while executing a perfect classic burlesque feather fan routine of which a seasoned Moulin Rouge dancer wouldn’t disapprove. Let us bet we’ll hear more of her! 

****1