THEATRE B A Reviews Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss New Theatre Cardiff REVIEWS

Ariadne auf Naxos

New Theatre

The Magic of Compromise

If you have never been to an opera before it would be a real treat to attend Welsh National Opera's new production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" by Richard Strauss at the New Theatre.

We are backstage at the Count's residence observing the preparations of the opera group and the light entertainment group that are due to perform that evening after dinner. At the last minute the Count decides that instead of having two separate performances both should take place simultaneously. This causes ructions between the two groups. Nevertheless, after the interval, we are transported to a desert island and see the two groups working together to create a performance of tragic opera interwoven with bawdy comedy; mixing life's emotions and mythology.

Ariadne (Janice Watson), abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, sings of her grief and her wish to die. Three Nymphs accompany her. Meanwhile Zerbinetta (Katarzyna Dondalska) and the four Clowns observe her and try unsuccessfully to cheer her up. There is a lovely bawdy comic interlude when Zerbinetta is flirting with the Clowns and chooses Harlequin for her lover; the incredible coloratura of her song very entertaining, as the pacing of it makes the four hang on her every note. Then Bacchus (Peter Hoare), the youthful God, arrives on the island after escaping from Circe. Ariadne dies of grief but is resurrected by him.

This is WNO's last season at the New Theatre before moving to the new Millennium Centre. Their recent work has received huge acclaim and this production maintains the standard; it is beautifully balanced, performed, designed and directed. The playing of the music is sublime; Carlo Rizzi's unobtrusive conducting of the chamber orchestra sustaining, underpinning, seamless and strong. Strauss' music is not the kind that you will be humming on leaving the theatre but it is beautiful and powerful.

Cleverly directed by Neil Armfield there are lovely contrasts, not only of styles of performance. The opera group take their art far too seriously and appear ridiculous in the Prologue, snobbish and disparaging of the light entertainers, but they come into their own "on stage" when they perform, whilst the comedians purposely make themselves look ridiculous in their performance for perfect comic effect.

Dale Ferguson's set is wonderful in its apparent simplicity. The detail of the backstage set contrasting with the barren desert island. The finale is awesome in its gentle reveal of a vibrant and beautiful adaptation of a star cloth by Lighting designer Tim Mitchell.

Some of the voices may not carry so strongly over the pit and the orchestra to the fifth row of the stalls, but, when the young composer sings, what a voice. If opera is about the music and the voice then listening to Alice Coote's performance as the composer is what it's all about. I knew she wasn't in the second half and felt as bereaved as Ariadne at the thought of it. But the "opera" of the second half takes on a life of its own, the sad and the humorous gently moving my emotions and I didn't miss the young composer so much, but what a roar of applause she received at the curtain call. The Nymphs' harmony is sublime at times; the Clowns so clever in a constant variety of funny movements and sketches, and Bacchus' entrance and voice have the necessary power to bring the performance to its triumphant conclusion.

A marvellous production, sad and funny, pulling me in regardless of my feeling the need to keep an eye on the English surtitles, visible from certain seats only, high above the proscenium, in case I missed something. Reading a synopsis and the luscious programme notes beforehand all contributed to my appreciation and enjoyment. The finale music and the final image of Ariadne and Bacchus bring a cathartic, very moving and powerful ending, leaving me quite satisfied and content. The magic of theatre. © JD

“Ariadne auf Naxos” is at the New Theatre Cardiff on the 11th, 17th and 27th of September, 2004 with performance talks at 6.15 pm for ticket holders.

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