Experience suggests that some of the most successful productions of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos are those that make an effort to wed the opera itself with the Prologue that sets up its unlikely combination of high and low art. Katharina Thoma, returning to Glyndebourne to oversee the first revival of her 2013 staging, has come up with a solution that on the surface might give the impression of tricksiness, but in practice proves both perceptive and moving. Taking her cue from the festival setting itself, she relocates the action from the house of the ‘richest man in Vienna’ to an English country house in about 1940, at a time when even the rural set were no longer cut off from the events of the wider world. The whole evening is seen as if through the Composer’s eyes, the experience of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood and unable as yet to connect the world of his musical imaginings with that of the wider reality. The Prologue itself proceeds conventionally until the final moments when a devastating air-raid sends the house into chaos and all the poor young Composer can do is hide his head under his score.

The Prologue © Robert Workman
The Prologue
© Robert Workman

Several months have passed and the house, damaged but shored-up by sandbags, has been requisitioned as a wartime sanatorium and the story of Ariadne herself plays out in this setting, where her abandonment by Theseus has left her longing for death (having already tried to slit her wrists). In this context, her care, overseen by Naiad, Dryad and Echo in the guise of three nurses, makes perfect sense. Her redeemer, Bacchus, is a battle-worn flying ace, downed but not out, and through his transformative effect she relinquishes her death wish for love. Inevitably, in this context, the Commedia dell’arte group becomes an ENSA troupe, providing light relief for the hospital inmates – a nifty way to justify their intrusions into the more serious fare in both their song-and-dance act and the behind-the-scenes rivalry for Zerbinetta’s attentions. The staging thus works on a number of levels at once, ranging from the literal to the meta-physical – indeed, it appears to travel, as does the story itself, from one state to the other. It doesn’t matter if you see the lead soprano as the mythical Ariadne or as a mentally traumatised Prima Donna from the Prologue. And by the end, with Ariadne and Bacchus transfigured by love, the Composer, too, who has hovered around the action up till now, is transfigured by his realisation that he has just witnessed the conclusion of his own opera.

Erin Morley (Zerbinetta), Manuel Günther, Daniel Mirosław and François Piolino © Robert Workman
Erin Morley (Zerbinetta), Manuel Günther, Daniel Mirosław and François Piolino
© Robert Workman

I will admit that at the interval I had my doubts about what this location would add to the evening as a whole, other than as a contrived tying-in to Glyndebourne’s away-from-the-world air. That it transcended this fear is tribute both to the detail of Thoma’s direction and to the way her staging illuminates the serious themes of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s concoction and turn it into more than a light-hearted comedy: high art versus low art; art itself transcending catastrophe; love overcoming death.

Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) © Robert Workman
Lise Davidsen (Ariadne)
© Robert Workman

This revival of Glyndebourne’s favourite Strauss opera (this was the 122nd performance in the festival’s history) is cast from strength. Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, making her festival debut, must be about the tallest Prima Donna/Ariadne ever to grace the stage, with a voice of similar stature – a gorgeous bloom at the top matched to a sonorous, mezzo-ish middle and smoky low register: her deep “Totenreich” at the beginning of her main aria was awe-inspiring. Also making her Glyndebourne debut, American mezzo Angela Brower was a compelling Composer, with empathetic stage presence and a voice to match. Erin Morley made light of Zerbinetta’s vocal fireworks and there was a real sense of ensemble with her troupe, led by the charismatic Björn Bürger as Harlequin, and joined by Francois Piolino, Daniel Miroslaw and Manuel Günther. American tenor AJ Glueckert’s Bacchus, though hampered in his projection of godliness by being costumed in a grubbily unprepossessing flying suit, coped ably with Strauss’s Heldentenor demands, a match for Davidsen’s soaring Ariadne in their final duet.

AJ Glueckert (Bacchus) © Robert Workman
AJ Glueckert (Bacchus)
© Robert Workman

Even the smaller roles were more than simply notable, from Thomas Allen’s well-delineated Music Master (44 years on from his first solo appearance at the festival), Nicholas Folwell’s suitably smarmy Major-Domo (deliciously crushed at one point by the Prima Donna’s physical and moral superiority) and Michael Laurenz’s flighty Dancing Master to a beautifully blended trio of nymphs from Hyesang Park, Avery Amereau and Ruzan Mantashyan.

Yet another debutant was conductor Cornelius Meister, music director-elect at Stuttgart Opera, who led the chamber-orchestra forces of the London Philharmonic in an account of Strauss’ score that managed to be both transparent and sumptuous.