If one of Wagner’s contributions to opera was the rise of the Heldentenor, then Richard Strauss’ riposte must surely be the way he expressed his love for the female voice in his music for the stage. The first four of his operatic collaborations with Hugo von Hofmannsthal all centre around a trio of sopranos of different types, and in the third of these works, Ariadne auf Naxos, composer and librettist set out the behind-the-scenes rivalry of trouser-role mezzo, prima donna and coloratura that can perhaps be seen as a satire on both the deadly trio of Elektra and the rival loves of Der Rosenkavalier.

Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) © Florian Merdes
Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne)
© Florian Merdes

The latest revival of Dietrich W. Hilsdorf’s 2014 production of the opera for Deutsche Oper am Rhein set this up nicely, with, respectively, Katarzyna Kuncio, Karine Babajanyan and Gloria Rehm in the three main female roles. Kuncio’s Composer conveyed the passion of the creative artist, as a Straussian mouthpiece as it were; Babajanyan’s Prima Donna was a regal Ariadne with a real sense of phrasing and dynamic shape of her line; and Rehm’s Zerbinetta was bright and secure and with a delight in the mischief of her role.

Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) and Elena Sancho Pereg (Zerbinetta) © Hans Jörg Michel
Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) and Elena Sancho Pereg (Zerbinetta)
© Hans Jörg Michel

Is Strauss mocking Wagner’s Rhinemaidens with his trio of nymphs? The well-entwined singing of Elisabeth Selle, Elisabeth Bodorová and Stine Marie Fischer did nothing to disabuse that theory, and meanwhile Strauss’s tribute to the heroic tenor roles of his forebear was in good hands in the form of Corby Welch as a golden-toned Bacchus. A bright but well-blended troupe of comedians was led by a rather impressive Harlekin from Bogdan Baciu, with Jonas Gudmundsson (Brighella), Bruce Rankin (Scaramuccio) and Lukasz Konieczny (Truffaldin) completing the bill. And on a further Wagnerian note, sometime Wotan Stefan Heidemann was an acutely word-sensitive Musiklehrer in the Prologue, with Peter Nikolaus Kante his nemesis as a cajoling voice of the Haushofmeister and Florian Simson a camp but vocally agile Tanzmeister. Conductor Wen-Pin Chien also becomes a character in this staging, and his orchestra played for him with wit and full-bodied opulence.

Corby Welch (Bacchus) and Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne) © Florian Merdes
Corby Welch (Bacchus) and Karine Babajanyan (Ariadne)
© Florian Merdes

To accommodate this operatic dissection, Hilsdorf and his designer Dieter Richter have, as it were, turned the Düsseldorf Opera House inside out: what we see on stage is a mirror image of the auditorium in which we are sitting, wooden panelling and all, with orchestra on stage behind a gauze and the acting area brought forward over the covered pit. The whole evening is very much presented as if we, the audience, are guests at the richest man in Vienna’s admittedly vast private theatre. Five minutes before official curtain-up time, as people are still taking their seats, the conductor runs his string players through some of their trickier passages while lackadaisical scene shifters rush to get the stage furniture in place. And there’s a false start, with the orchestral prelude having to be repeated.

Katarzyna Kuncio (The Composer), Florian Simson (The Dancing Master) © Florian Merdes
Katarzyna Kuncio (The Composer), Florian Simson (The Dancing Master)
© Florian Merdes
Hofmannsthal himself wrote that he saw Ariadne, the opera, as a ‘play within a play’, but it’s taken a stage further here in that, run together with no interval after the scene-setting Prologue, it is always very much a ‘show’ with all its mechanics open to view and the house lights on as much as they are off. Zerbinetta, for example, uses her showpiece aria to pour vocal scorn on the Composer’s score, while the Composer himself is still present on stage to witness her physical allure; the Prima Donna, as Ariadne, goes off in a huff in exasperation at the length of the interruption to her performance and Zerbinetta herself breaks the ‘fourth wall’ with her milking of her applause.

There’s usually a point in most Ariadne performances where the operatic magic of soprano and tenor in golden vocal embrace takes us into the truly extra-theatrical zone. It happens here, too, but the bubble bursts right at the end: as soon as they have sung their last lines, Prima Donna and Tenor slink to the side for a celebratory drink and relaxation, and in perhaps Hilsdorf’s most controversial move, the sublime closing chords are submerged behind clatter as the front row of audience (extras) dashes off to the sounds of the promised fireworks outside. Even the ‘curtain calls’ (there is no curtain) had their moments of ill-rehearsed confusion, though if that was part of the show it wasn’t obvious. But throughout the wit is subtle rather than hammed-up, the inventiveness is perceptive rather than an imposition and… I wish it hadn’t taken me this long to catch up with this highly enjoyable production.

****1