Various - Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos - The Arts Desk

This lively interpretation of Richard Strauss’s opera within an opera provides a feast for the senses as a musical highlight of the Edinburgh international Festival.

As with the rest of the festival’s 2021 programme, the opera is performed outdoors, in a hangar designed to protect the audience from the Scottish elements and to allow for social distancing.

While the venue has proven challenging for some concert performances, it feels appropriate for the setting of Ariadne auf Naxos.The two-hour show is an excellent choice for a slightly chilly evening, as Strauss delights in revealing the backstage theatrics of artists preparing for a performance and the challenges arising from the narcissistic elements of the artistic psyche.

Featuring a brilliant cast and exceptional all-round performances from Catriona Morison as the Composer, Dorothea Röschmann as Ariadne, Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta and David Butt Philip as Bacchus, the opera is made all the more magical by the finely balanced contribution of the versatile Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Lothar Koenigs (welcoming leader Sharon Roffman as pictured below). Orchestra for EIF Ariadne auf NaxosStrauss and his librettish, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, set the scene at the house of the "richest man in Vienna", where two sets of theatrics are to be staged for guests before fireworks at 9 pm; an opera seria, followed by a comic entertainment. However, all goes wrong when Thomas Quasthoff's Major-Domo (pictured below) bluntly announces that both opera and comedy are to be performed simultaneously, to the dismay of the artists.

It was a joy to watch Martin Gantner and Peter Bronder as Music and Dancing Masters respectively, reassuring and pandering to the artists' every whim with words to soothe the protest, while the lead singers ask to have their colleagues' parts cut. The limited space is used admirably here to showcase the chaos of the moment, as the artists mill about the stage while addressing each other. Thomas Quasthoff as the Major Domo in Ariadne auf NaxosA flirty and intimate duet between Zerbinetta and the Composer follows. Zerbinetta charms him into revealing the story of his opera and suggests that Ariadne needs a new lover after being abandoned on the Island of Naxos. The Composer reluctantly compromises, unaware of the consequences. Morison captivates throughout the Prologue, embodying the role of the impetuous young Composer with her rich mezzo-soprano. Her high notes are perfectly placed, overall displaying a wonderful balance of strength and delicacy while striding purposefully around the stage.

Meanwhile, the eminent style and flirtatious body language of Brenda Rae (pictured below) bring Zerbinetta to life. She is a force to be reckoned with during the opera section, where she executes her coloratura aria with apparent ease, leaving the audience chuckling with joy and jubilant in its applause.

Following the agreement reached in the Prologue, the opera begins with a captivating Röschmann emerging onto the stage as Ariadne, solemn in tone and demeanour. Her supportive team of nymphs - Claire Barnett-Jones, Liv Redpath and Soraya Mafi - create ethereal sounds in ther lamentatory description of Ariadne's plight.

Röschmann’s first entrance as Ariadne is in total , deep contrast to the prologue - a tortured and depressed figure. Her voice fills the airy venue, a masterclass in restrained power. The comedians – Rae's Zerbinetta, Joshua Hopkin's Harlequin, Alexander Sprague's Scaramuccio, Barnaby Rea's Truffaldino and Sunnyboy Dladla's Brighella – unsuccessfully attempt to amuse her, juxtaposing the tragedy with inflatable palm trees and oversized neon sunglasses, providing some comic relief to the delight of the audience. Brenda Rae as ZerbinettaAriadne's sadness masterfully evolves into a longing for love however, once Bacchus arrives on his ship, having escaped the enchantress Circe. David Butt Philip impresses as the confused god, captivating the audience with charisma once he takes the stage. His voice elicits hope, with a warm and chocolatey tenor tone. His transformation of Ariadne's despair into a longing for love is both riveting and emotional and is highlighted in the final transformation – a magical moment complemented by the RSNO which dazzles and draws in the audience.

The Arts Desk
30 August 2021