Strauss loved operas about opera. In Capriccio, the question “Prima la musica e poi le parole” is one which vexes the Countess. Which has supremacy: words or music? In his other opera about opera, Strauss parodies high and low art. In the house of ‘the richest man in Vienna’, a private première of a young composer’s operatic adaptation of Ariadne auf Naxos is about to take place. The company learns that a commedia dell’arte troupe is to provide a comic opera buffa as epilogue before a grand fireworks display concludes the evening’s entertainment at nine o’clock sharp. To make matters worse, the Major-domo has an announcement to make. To the composer’s despair, the master has decided – in order to avoid them overrunning – that both works are to be presented simultaneously. Chaos ensues and artistic high temperaments are flaunted.

Ariadne auf Naxos: Prologue © Catherine Ashmore
Ariadne auf Naxos: Prologue
© Catherine Ashmore

Christof Loy’s production opens with a coup de scène. As the guests arrive in the lavish entrance lobby, the entire set rises to reveal the grubby basement where both companies are making their last minute preparations. Unfortunately, the set’s complexity means an unduly lengthy interval of 40 minutes is required to completely remove clear the stage and import the set for the opera proper. It’s a good job there’s no nine o’clock deadline for fireworks over Covent Garden.

In Ariadne auf Naxos, Strauss and Hofmannsthal brilliantly juxtapose high and low art, revealing a dividing line between the two thinner than both sides would readily acknowledge. Loy points this up expertly. In the Prologue, it’s the antics of the Ariadne soprano and tenor which are loaded with comedy, while Zerbinetta, the soubrettish commedia dell’arte star, turns out to be level-headed and practical. The rest of her troupe are vividly characterised, headed by Ed Lyon’s yellow-suited, camp Dancing Master. Loy invents a dark relationship between Markus Werba’s slick (but vocally bullish) Harlequin and Zerbinetta, which sees her eventually succumb to him mid-opera, only to have him abandon her at the end, neatly reflecting Ariadne’s original predicament. How the tables are turned. Where Loy’s production falls down is in the dislocation between Prologue and Opera. Why do Zerbinetta’s colleagues head off in white tie and tails only to appear on-stage in biker gear and combats?

Roberto Saccà (Bacchus) and Karita Mattila (Ariadne) © Catherine Ashmore
Roberto Saccà (Bacchus) and Karita Mattila (Ariadne)
© Catherine Ashmore

In this most pointed of operas about opera, the lines between reality and performance are blurred. In the Prologue, the singer about to play the role of Ariadne is a diva of the first order – deeply offended at having to share a stage with Zerbinetta’s burlesque troupe; jealously guarding against any cuts imposed on her part in the opera. Anyone who’s familiar with Karita Mattila’s larger than life persona – who could forget her colourful commentary in last year’s Cardiff Singer competition? – may be forgiven for wondering where Mattila the performer ended and where Strauss’ soprano began. In glamorous silken dressing gown and pink fluffy slippers, her Norma Desmond-esque tantrums were so gloriously over the top that it seemed Mattila was entering the realms of self-parody. Her comic timing is acute. Vocally, her performance was far from plain sailing. In the opera proper, Mattila’s Ariadne was a little unwieldy, with some thinness of tone at the top, and she indulged in some freefall swoops and scoops, but when the gears click and the engine roars, hers is still a magnificent instrument. For sheer magnetism and chutzpah, she was pretty sensational and earned roars of approval at the curtain call.

Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta) and Ruxandra Donose (The Composer) © Catherine Ashmore
Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta) and Ruxandra Donose (The Composer)
© Catherine Ashmore

It’s because of the way Mattila grabs centre stage and never lets go that Jane Archibald’s Zerbinetta was all the more remarkable. Making her House debut, her understated acting and cool demeanour offered winning charm and the way she dispatched Zerbinetta’s fiendishly difficult aria, full of coloratura pyrotechnics trilling and twirling, was jaw-dropping. Her soprano is no lightweight canary, but a rich, vibrant instrument, full of colour.

The art of casting revivals well has been a happy knack for the Royal Opera this season. The depth in casting here was consistently strong. Thomas Allen reprised his role as the Music Master with keen diction and a nice line in frantic despair. Ruxandra Donose sang an impassioned Composer, her rich voice occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra, but affecting in her duet with Zerbinetta where, momentarily, a profound connection is made between them. Roberto Saccà was impressive as the Tenor/ Bacchus, his dry tone still ample enough to ride Strauss’ unsympathetic orchestration.

Of the minor roles, Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth made for a well-blended trio as Naiad, Dryad and Echo. Christoph Quest lacked the puffed-up pomposity or world-weariness which can make the spoken role of the Major-domo a gift. Antonio Pappano, back conducting the production which marked the start of his tenure as Music Director in 2002, happily blended the rococo wit and Wagnerian tragedy of Strauss’ score, drawing ultra-fine playing from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House.

As revivals go, Mattila and Archibald’s contrasting approaches make this Ariadne a must-see.