The March opera gods have not been kind to Scottish Opera: snow forced cancellation of a performance of Flight earlier in the month, and the billowing smoke from huge fire in Glasgow put paid to the first performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, a new co-production with Opera Holland Park directed and designed by Antony McDonald. With neighbouring streets still closed, and a slightly smoky aroma lingering in the auditorium, General Director Alex Reedijk took to the stage to thank audience and artists for their understanding, welcoming all to the new opening night.   

Laura Zigmantaite (Dryad), Mardi Byers (Ariadne), Elizabeth Cragg (Naiad) and Lucy Hall (Echo) © Richard Campbell
Laura Zigmantaite (Dryad), Mardi Byers (Ariadne), Elizabeth Cragg (Naiad) and Lucy Hall (Echo)
© Richard Campbell

Ariadne auf Naxos begins in a prologue backstage as an opera company and a burlesque troupe of players both prepare their shows to entertain the guests of the richest man in the city after their dinner. McDonald boldly parks three artists’ trailers on the summer event-worn lawns of a country house, modest caravans for opera singers and a massive one with a roof ladder for the troupe of players. As the Composer hands out music and the players led by the coquettish Zerbinetta limber up, the Major-Domo announces that both entertainments must now take place simultaneously as the meal has overrun and entertainment must be over by 9pm sharp for the fireworks. There was much fun to be had as a trio of old hands Sir Thomas Allen, the Music Master, Jamie MacDougall the Dancing Master and the wonderful Eleanor Bron as the Major-Domo (in spotted welly boots under her dress) battled it out, doing their best to keep artistic temperaments intact as cuts and compromises had to be made. Helen Cooper’s witty English translation brought every bruised ego into the spotlight, as the players invaded the stage practicing their newly-learnt tricks courtesy of Circus Skills Director Joe Dieffenbacher.

The Composer is normally a trouser role but in a contemporary twist, McDonald cast Swedish soprano Julia Sporsén as a woman, shedding completely new light on Zerbinetta’s sudden spark of attraction as both declare that they are seeking true love. Sporsén gave a truly magnificent performance, outraged at her opera seria being adapted and ruined by low-art burlesque. Her final aria, an outpouring on the importance of music and high art was passionately delivered, and one of the evening’s musical highlights.  

Thomas (Brighella), Otterburn (Harlequin), Norman (Scaramuccio) and Nomura (Truffaldino) © Richard Campbell
Thomas (Brighella), Otterburn (Harlequin), Norman (Scaramuccio) and Nomura (Truffaldino)
© Richard Campbell

Moving to the front of the country house for the entertainment, and back to the original German, Mardi Byers as Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus bemoaned her fate, comforted by a trio of Naiad, Dryad and Echo, finely balanced singing from Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall. The players intruded at various stages, a cheerfully harmonious, busy ensemble spinning plates and toying with magic wands, in contrast to Ariadne’s gloom. Jennifer France as Zerbinetta gave a literally show-stopping performance, her high, bright coloratura aria pinpoint-accurate, sung as she transformed herself from black top hat and trousers to an outrageous red and gold basque costume complete with a plume of matching tail feathers.  

It took the arrival of Bacchus to finally cheer Ariadne up, Kor-Jan Dusseljee and Mardi Byers circling each other suspiciously before they both soared into the gloriously passionate final duet, true love found at last. Scored for a small orchestra with 2 harps, piano, celeste and harmonium, Brad Cohen conducted with watchable, eloquent gestures, placing his double woodwind out at the front for maximum impact. There were a few untidy corners in exposed passages, but there was a freshness in the colouring from the unusual instrumental combinations and plenty of passion unleashed at key moments in Strauss’ Romantic chromaticism, breath-taking modulations and lush harmonies.

Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) © Richard Campbell
Jennifer France (Zerbinetta)
© Richard Campbell

McDonald’s costumes were bright, colourful and detailed, transforming from the everyday in the prologue into things of wonder for the opera. Burlesque sparkle aside, I loved the three spirits in simple white dresses with individual black and white prints, tree branches and henna arm tattoos for the Dryad and a face for Echo, the boned trains opening out to wings to magical effect in Wolfgang Göbbel’s beautifully moonlit country house garden.

Ariadne auf Naxos is a life-affirming piece of high art and low art combining in a wondrous transformation. In a final tableau, Bron, Allen and MacDougall peeped round the doors of the country house in disbelief as even the Composer was finally won over, as were we. Scottish Opera commissioned also a new short work from its composer-in-residence Samuel Bordoli using musicians not playing in the Strauss. Grace Notes, with a libretto by Bernard MacLaverty used strings and brass and was performed ahead of the main show in the new foyer of Theatre Royal using the spiral staircase. Catherine Backhouse’s rich, strong mezzo filled the space, wandering through the promenade audience as an unsure Irish composer. Patrick Milne conducted the tight small band, excitement building by the appearance of two Lambeg drums. Zerbinetta would have certainly approved.