“…und was ist denn Musik?” “…And so what, then, is Music?” asks a half-distraught, half ecstatic Composer at the end of the Prologue to Strauss’ Ariadne Auf Naxos. A command performance of his new opera seria Ariadne, commissioned as after-dinner entertainment by an unseen patron, seems almost derailed; we have seen the Composer’s hopes for the piece, his fears, his first-night nerves, and his dawning panic as he learns his sublime opera is to give way to a decidedly saucy cabaret act. This is not the end of the horror: instructions are suddenly relayed that the opera and cabaret must in fact share the stage, performing simultaneously, to finish promptly for the fireworks at 9pm. The whims of the unfeeling market threaten to make a complete mockery of the Composer’s vision of deathless love: ultimately, however, they just underline opera’s victory.

Clare Presland (Composer) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Clare Presland (Composer)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in this wryly comic piece, juxtapose ‘high’ and ‘low’ art to discuss the fundamental problems of opera making: Is it too long? Will people be bored? Should a composer care whether an audience think either of those things? Should divine visions of philosophical beauty be cut short by practical things like food or fireworks? Within this endless juggling act lies the art of opera: but also, more widely, the art of life itself, in which the sublime and the ridiculous, the tasteful and the crass, collide and contradict themselves constantly. This can drive us mad; it can also keep us sane.

One serious risk of this opera, in practice, is that low art can eclipse high art, not least because cabaret star Zerbinetta (Robyn Allegra Parton) gets a showstopping aria. For Longborough Festival Opera, director Alan Privett cheerfully celebrates the cosmopolitan freedom and moral chaos of Zerbinetta and her troupe with dynamic choreography, but the Wagnerian lyricism of the ‘opera’ characters keeps the piece anchored overall on the high art side, where the magic of stillness creates inner realism.

Jonathan Stoughton (Bacchus) and Helena Dix (Ariadne) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Jonathan Stoughton (Bacchus) and Helena Dix (Ariadne)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Longborough's casting is certainly luxurious: Helena Dix has great fun with her pouty Prima Donna in the Prologue, but her luminous Ariadne is textbook justification for any amount of diva histrionics, finding real human depth and emotional elegance in this abstracted, suicidal heroine. Jonathan Stoughton’s macho Tenor makes way, similarly, for a superb Bacchus: every inch the star, Stoughton commands the stage with fearless sincerity, taking Bacchus on a genuine journey of emotional discovery as the young god comes to know his own power through the experience of Ariadne’s love, his tenor sumptuous and expressive, though frustratingly his very final lines were swallowed into the stage space, his positioning made ever more awkward by the combination of steps and some unhelpfully billowing trousers. However, the vocal fireworks of Dix and Stoughton delivered everything fervently anticipated by Clare Presland’s intense Composer, just the right mixture of arrogant aesthetic focus, youthful bravado and desperate vulnerability: Presland’s explosive realisation that “Musik ist heilige Kunst” was tearjerking, while her relationship with Darren Jeffrey’s tawny-voiced, worldly Music-Master felt both tempestuous and longstanding. On Naxos itself, Flora McIntosh’s exceptional Dryad was warmly expressed and beautifully acted, with fine support from Alice Privett’s increasingly well-rounded Echo and Suzanna Fischer’s bright, naive Naiad.

Suzanne Fischer (Naiad), Alice Privett (Echo) and Flora McIntosh (Dryad) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Suzanne Fischer (Naiad), Alice Privett (Echo) and Flora McIntosh (Dryad)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

On the lighter side, Harry Nicoll’s unflappably cynical Dance Master was a joy, the experienced impresario who has seen it all, darling, yawn. Zerbinetta’s troupe arrived on Naxos as glam rock fairies, with bondage accessories implying Zerbinetta’s sexual hold. Parton’s first night performance was dramatically uneven, but showed great promise in her two key arias, admitting her inner emptiness to the Composer in the Prologue, and marvelling at the “eternal, bewildering wonder” of love in the Opera. While Parton’s Zerbinetta made an undeniable mark, her soprano, though agile and often exhilaratingly expressive, could feel starkly thin in comparison to the creamy richness of Dix. But this is an opera of two worlds in collision, and Anthony Negus, conducting the Longborough Orchestra, worked the score’s lightning moodswings and dreamily re-echoed themes into a glittering, believable whole.

Harry Nicoll (Dancing Master) and Robyn Allegra Parton (Zerbinetta) © Matthew Williams-Ellis
Harry Nicoll (Dancing Master) and Robyn Allegra Parton (Zerbinetta)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Faye Bradley’s soothing design places the performance in an ultra-contemporary world of cool greys, silvers and purples, where high net worth toddler tantrums must always be expensively accommodated; Antony Wise’s acid-camp Major Domo brooks no opposition. Money not only talks, but has the last word (even when those very demands prove the Patron lacks the cultural equipment required to appreciate what he has bought). On Naxos, Ariadne’s now-useless thread dominates the stage, recalling the terrible price she paid for Theseus’ fickle love; costumes are shredded Grecian gowns (and those disastrously voluminous trousers). Bradley’s masterful control of colour and texture keeps Prologue and performance connected, yet distinct; consequences of each other, like art and life.   

****1