It’s rare for an operatic co-production to pay homage to the environs of both of its producing parties. Premiered by Scottish Opera in the spring, Antony McDonald’s staging of Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos relocates the action of the Prologue from Vienna to the home of the “richest man in Glasgow”, which happens to resemble the frontage of Holland House in London – recreated on stage north of the border, but here in actuality as the backdrop for Opera Holland Park’s turn with the production. Opera singers and cabaret troupe vie for attention from their trailers parked outside, as Eleanor Bron’s Party Planner (Major-Domo in the original) throws one more challenge at their evening’s work: to perform their high and low arts simultaneously, so that her employer can enjoy a firework display promptly at nine o’clock. It made complete sense to perform this first part of the evening in English (Bron, whose spoken role struggled to project in OHP’s open auditorium, in broad Glaswegian) and the opera that follows in the original German. Helen Cooper’s often free translation had good fun on the way (though Stephen Gadd’s eloquent Professor of Composition – aka Music Master – seemed the least likely to be complaining about ‘Johnny Foreigner Eurotrash’ as he promotes the German-language work of his pupil).

Julia Sporsén (The Composer) and Stephen Gadd (Professor of Composition) © Ali Wright
Julia Sporsén (The Composer) and Stephen Gadd (Professor of Composition)
© Ali Wright

Geography and language aren’t the only twists that McDonald gives his production. The Composer, one of opera’s great traditional trouser roles, is portrayed here as a woman, which sets up an intriguing dynamic in her sudden infatuation with Zerbinetta, who at first seems taken aback, but who in the last moments of the opera itself turns her back on Harlequin for the Composer. With Zerbinetta herself dressed for part of the evening in Cabaret-style MC outfit, there’s an intriguing ambiguity and fluidity about gender and sexuality at play that neatly counterpoints the oh-so-heterosexual preoccupations of gods and harlequinade in Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s original exploration of love. Julia Sporsén’s vivid soprano Composer (the voice type specified by Strauss, despite the part having become a favourite of young mezzos) was the vocal highlight of the Prologue, with characterful cameos from the rest of the cast. Jamie MacDougall’s finely sung Producer (aka Dancing Master) was marred by his gor-blimey-guv Cockney accent – never a good idea outside My Fair Lady.

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

For the opera itself, the staging is simple: a platform laid before Holland House’s grand entrance, a coffin to represent Ariadne’s death-wish, together with the detritus of her wedding feast. Ariadne enters like a brief vision of Miss Havisham, abandoned in her nuptial veil by Theseus. Her three companions, Naiad, Dryad and Echo (a sumptuously voiced trio of Elizabeth Cragg, Laura Zigmantaite and Lucy Hall) comment like a Greek chorus. And the story’s origins and location aren’t lost on the cabaret troupe, either, with one character consulting a book on Greek myths and another dressed in Greek traditional dress – and the modern Hellenistic references go on: the ‘harlequinade’ intermezzo climaxes with the group sporting some pretty nifty circus tricks involving dinner plates snatched from the dining table, none of which was smashed, however. Indeed, there was some terrific teamwork on display from Alex Otterburn (Harlequin), Daniel Norman (Scaramuccio), Lancelot Nomura (Truffaldino) and Elgan Llŷr Thomas (Brighella), both visually and vocally.

Jennifer France (Zerbinetta) © Robert Workman
Jennifer France (Zerbinetta)
© Robert Workman

Which leaves the three big roles. Jennifer France – effectively an OHP discovery since her 2015 debut in Flight – is surely the Zerbinetta of our dreams: nimble in her acting as she is agile in her singing, she exudes charisma and guile in equal measure. By contrast, I’ve heard Ariadnes with more of a bloom to their voice than American soprano Mardi Byers, but she used the harder edge to her tone to good advantage in conveying the character’s troubled soul. Kor-Jan Dusseljee’s silver-haired Bacchus was sung with clarity and firm tone (how mean of Strauss to let the Heldentenor wait until the last 15 minutes for his entrance and expect him to sing like a god). Both principals sounded happier in the longer-limbed phrases of their operatic duet than in their wordy interjections in the Prologue, where they sounded a little squally. Here in the climactic coda, though, and with conductor Brad Cohen’s City of London Sinfonia glorious in its depth of colour and sonority, the two singers achieved that transformative quality, where all the evening’s banter is forgotten and the singing and playing speak of their new-found union.

This was Opera Holland Park’s first Strauss opera in its 23-year history, and on this basis I hope it won’t be the last.

****1