Richard Strauss’ outstanding catalogue of operas is part of the staple diet of opera houses around the world. From the musically and dramatically intense scores of Salome and Elektra to the romantically lush, emotional sweepings of Der Rosenkavalier, there is something in his canon for all manner of opera enthusiasts. Ariadne auf Naxos (first performed in Stuttgart in 1912) has had many popular revivals, though may still be counted amongst Strauss’ rarer performed works – any opportunity in which to hear it should be taken. For the five performances scheduled in 2012 at the Opernhaus Zürich one could not wish for a better cast, livelier interpretation or more fascinating set designs.

Ariadne is split into two parts: the Prologue, and the Opera. The plot is simple and comic, fundamentally the première of an opera within an opera and the stressful preamble that precedes it. A young composer is anxious about the première of his new opera, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’, a dark and intense social commentary which is scheduled to be performed at the estate of ‘the richest man in Vienna’ after a splendid banquet. As his artistic passions swell with nerves, the young composer soon becomes hysterical when he is informed that not only is his serious piece to be followed by a frivolous and bawdy operetta-style entertainment whose heroine is the saucy Zerbinetta, but that his opera and the following comedy are to be intertwined as one so that the evening’s musical amusement may be finished prior to a fireworks display at nine o’clock sharp.

The artists of both opera and comedy are horrified at this revelation and bewail their irritation at having to share their stage with either the saucy burlesque actors of the lighter entertainment or the pompous and self-righteous members of the opera company. Being given this information only minutes before the performance is due to begin, the composer is suitably desperate, and all the other artists are horrified at having to mingle with the other company. However, a dancing master concerned with the following comedy assures the composer that all is not lost and that the operetta company are adept in improvisation and can easily be assimilated into any work – even his opera, if he makes a few cuts to his overly exaggerated score. He reluctantly does so and with tension rising, the Opera begins.

This production’s Prologue was bleak, the designer opting for a low-maintenance, uncluttered approach. This allowed much room for the characters to present their highly different personalities without some offensive modern staging or unnecessary props and furniture.

The Music-Master, played by Martin Gantner, set the scene beautifully with his portrayal as the nervous bearer of bad news to the composer, his dark but warm bass voice resounding from the stage. It is worth pointing out that the previous night Gantner had sung the part of Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and was easily the most comical and strongest member of the cast both musically and dramatically. The Composer, one of Strauss’ trouser roles, was taken by Michelle Breedt who, though a small part only featured in the Prologue, presented a character of very strong emotional quality and suitable desperation.

The second act, which takes the form of the new Opera, was quite another matter and set in an excellent replica of Zürich’s world famous Kronenhalle restaurant. The distressed Ariadne, having being deserted by Theseus, sat solitary at a table in the corner of the restaurant, glass of wine in hand, instead of a lonely desert island. Though this of course contradicts Hofmannsthal’s libretto, which makes specific reference to his Lordship’s unsettled disapproval of being presented with a desert for his entertainment, we can be satisfied that the set was so alluringly accurate that, having inspired certain audience members to visit the Kronenhalle itself beforehand, it won a round of applause before anyone had sung a note.

Ricarda Merbeth took the part of the Prima Donna and Ariadne, and gave sufficient weight and drama to one of Strauss’ less famous but still crushingly tragic soprano roles. Playing the Tenor and Bacchus was Michael König, who sang well – it is a pity, however, that this role does not allow for much variety in the way of acting and he was stationary much of the time. The true star of the piece was Elena Mosuc as the flirtatious Zerbinetta, whose challenging vocal pyrotechnics must surely be a terror for even the most accomplished of sopranos. Nonetheless the challenges were fought head-on and Mosuc enchanted the audience to wild applause.

The variety of ensembles, from the trio of nymphs commenting on Ariadne’s misery to the comic entertainers vying to lighten her mood, were deliciously sung and balanced excellently.

Conductor Peter Schneider led orchestra and cast in a truly gripping operatic experience.