Last night’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Four Seasons Centre was a delight. It’s a peculiar opera and clearly a section of the audience hadn’t done their homework and were rather confused. It’s in two parts. In the prologue arrangements are being made for two pieces to be performed at a big party at the home of “The richest man in Vienna”. The first is an opera seria; Ariadne in fact written by a young earnest composer and to be performed by a stereotypically haughty diva and tenor. The second is a buffo piece to be performed by the dancer Zerbinetta and her troop of Harlequins. There is much huffing and puffing by the serious opera crowd, especially the composer, about having to perform in such undignified company but the boss is the boss and money talks. The final indignity is when the Major Domo announces his master’s decision that both pieces must be presented simultaneously. Last night this was played out in modern dress on a set that faithfully, at least as I remember it, recreated the rather drab back stage areas of the Four Seasons Centre. I have no idea how many people got the joke but I thought it was funny. Alice Coote, as the composer, and Richard Stilwell, as his mentor, the music master, were excellent and everyone else contributed as needed to make for a very funny first half. It was almost, but not quite, enough to distract attention from some truly gorgeous orchestral playing by the COC Orchestra under Sir Andrew Davis.
The opera proper is a classical myth based story about Ariadne being abandoned by Theseus and wishing to die on her desert island where she is accompanied only by three nymphs who comment on her condition. Ariadne’s big aria, “Es gibt ein Reich”, is all about longing for solace in death. Adrienne Pieczonka sang gorgeously and was well supported by the three nymphs; Simone Osborne, Teiya Kasahara, Lauren Segal. The orchestral playing just kept hitting the spot. All this was played out in front of a very drab backdrop with holes torn in it through which Zerbinetta and her boys were observing the action. This is where it gets weird again as first the Harlequins appear and try to cheer Ariadne up with a bit of comic singing and dancing. She is unmoved. The boys having failed, Zerbinetta herself appears and explains her views on their shared plight as women and her rather cynical philosophy of love. This happens in a coloratura aria of truly fiendish length and difficulty (“Großmächtige Prinzessin”). Jane Archibald brought it off with aplomb and brought the house down. Then it all gets serious again. Bacchus arrives (raving about having been bewitched by Circe, or not). Bacchus and Ariadne sing at each other heroically and rather at cross purposes until they realise that they have redeemed, transformed or something each other through love. Zerbinetta briefly reappears to remind everyone that “a new God always comes”. Ariadne and Bacchus get even more ecstatic, all sorts of starry things start to appear projected on the stage and backdrops, the orchestra goes nuts, and the curtain falls. It shouldn’t work. It’s Strauss and Hofmannsthal perhaps being too clever for their own good but, miraculously, it does work and the music is fabulous. When the performances are as good as last night it’s all really rather wonderful.
The audience reaction was interesting. A non trivial number of seats were empty after the interval and one couple left rather abruptly half way through the opera proper. Those who stayed were very enthusiastic. Makes me wonder what’s happening with the COC audience. Thoughts on that will form part of a season round up post I think.