Subtlety isn't a word necessarily associated with opera, but I can't listen to the prologue of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos without admiring the intelligence in the way Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto keeps you amused and keeps you thinking at the same time. The collision between serious opera and low-life vaudeville is a farce, played out by characters who are utter caricatures, but you don't have to reach far below the slapstick surface to find plenty of food for thought.

Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta) and Karita Mattila (Prima donna) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta) and Karita Mattila (Prima donna)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Strauss being one of the more blatantly egotistical of composers, the character most likely to make you think is the Composer, whose happy self-image as a tortured aesthete is shattered by one kiss from Zerbinetta. Both keep you guessing: when Zerbinetta sings of being a different woman behind the mask, is she being truthful or just making a seduction ploy? When the Composer sings of love and abandonment, is she singing about herself or is she putting herself in character as Ariadne? The scene was touchingly played by Ruxandra Donose and Jane Archibald: the odd technical imperfection from Donose mattered little to their engaging interplay as the sensitivities of both characters blended beautifully in Strauss’s lush music.

In Christof Loy’s production, revived here by Julia Burbach, “the richest man in Vienna” has done well at Monopoly and upgraded his house to a smart hotel: we begin in the lobby as the party guests arrive, soon to be plunged into the basement depths where the performers are preparing their “entertainments” by the improbable means of the whole stage rising up. It’s a spectacular effect, but one wonders at the effort and expense involved, given that the mechanism is never used again. The staging works well enough in the prologue, less so in the main opera that follows where there is no sense of play-within-a-play: Ariadne, Bacchus and Zerbinetta’s troupe do their stuff in broadly contemporary costumes in a straightforward hotel ballroom. And the whole thing feels under-directed: there’s little pizzazz in the capers of the Commedia dell’Arte players and little chemistry between Karita Mattila’s Ariadne and Robert Dean Smith’s Bacchus.

Robert Dean Smith (Bacchus) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Robert Dean Smith (Bacchus)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

But Mattila’s singing is majestic. I keep fearing the need to write something along the lines “of course, Mattila's voice isn’t what it used to be,” but that fear is confounded every time: Mattila creates that magical combination of hitting the notes with power and feeling, showing perfect breath control as she follows a line through a complex phrase, and maintaining warmth of timbre throughout. Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta provided the perfect foil: a light, glittering coloratura but still capable of projecting real emotion through the slapstick antics. Robert Dean Smith provided a good foil of a different kind: the idea of a light heldentenor sounds like an oxymoron, but that’s how Dean Smith’s voice struck me. There’s the stamina and inner strength to sing long phrases in a truly heroic role, but it's coupled with a bright, clear timbre. Other roles were sung strongly: Karen Cargill as Dryad and Kiandra Howarth as Echo impressed beyond the limitations of their roles, while in the prologue, Thomas Allen’s world-weary Music Master put in a worthy attempt at stealing the show.

Thomas Allen (Music Master) and Ruxandra Donose (The Composer) © Catherine Ashmore | ROH
Thomas Allen (Music Master) and Ruxandra Donose (The Composer)
© Catherine Ashmore | ROH

Just as I think the performance was under-directed, I feel there’s more in the score than Lothar Koenigs was able to extract from the orchestra. The rapture in Strauss’s music came through, but the players rarely summoned up the zest to contrast with it, and the overall playing often verged on the sluggish.

For all my reservations, and for all that this is “just a revival” of a production which revived as recently as last year, this is a production with some fine singing, and one which brings across all of the wit in the prologue. And the chance to see Karita Mattila singing Ariadne isn’t one to be missed.