Opera made and played for laughs

Diva undone: A gobsmacked Orla Boylan (Ariadne) being cheered up by Julian Close (Truffaldino) Owen Webb (Harlequin) Aled Hall (Scaramuccio) Wynne Evans (Brighella). Pictures: Richard H Smith

Ariadne Auf Naxos

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


OPERA and fun, even farce, in the same sentence is a rare event unless both Gilbert and Sullivan have also crept in there under cover of darkness.

Much of opera revels in tragedy piled upon tragedy but Richard Strauss's Ariadne Auf Naxos doesn't sport a single death, there is no impending doom, no event of great import about to befall the heroine or her lover and there are plenty of genuine laughs.

Ariadne does not often see the light of day. WNO first performed this production six years ago but look in one of those lists of the worlds most loved or performed operas and the old girl doesn't make it into the top 20 which is a pity because in the hands of WNO this really is a little treat.

You can see why in many ways it is not top of the ops. For example it has no really well known arias so is never going to make it to some Classic FM favourite opera CD even when it gets down to volume 27.

That being said it does have fine singers and an excellent cast who milk every last drop of comedy out of the story.

For those unfamiliar with this Opera the wealthiest man in Vienna is laying on after dinner entertainment for his guests in the form of a classical opera he has commissioned, Ariadne Auf Naxos, whose high-brow company become apoplectic when they discover that their serious opera is to be followed by their rich patron's other theatrical entertainment for the evening by a low-brow, lewd comedy from some commedia dell'arte troupe.

It's all getting a bit much for the composer, Sarah Connolly, as she realises her opera has to share the stage with a comedy act

The comics in turn are worried that the audience will be so bored after sitting through the tedium of an opera that they will be difficult to raise into laughter.

No matter. The Major-Domo (Eric Roberts) announces that the Viennese VIP, who is paying all the pipers whatever their brow, has decided that to save a bit of time he wants the opera and comedy performed simultaneously - Oh and they have to finish by 9pm because that is when the fireworks display starts. So get on with it. Chop Chop.

The Prologue is set backstage when all this is explained and we have some wonderful characterisations of prima donnas, divas and divos. There is the Music Master, (Robert Poulton) who looks a little like Albert Einstein with a baton worried about how his stars will react and then there is his star pupil . . .

This is the distraught composer whose life is ended and worthless and all those other operatic cliches if her opera is not performed as writ. Sarah Connolly brings not only a fine voice but a tongue in cheek quality to the role.

Leading the Opera brigade is Ariadne herself played with a mix of Wagnerian imperiousness and genuine fun by Orla Boylan. A fine voice with a fine sense of comic timing particularly when her tragic operatic ramblings are interrupted repeatedly by the comedy act. 

No opera is complete without - the tenor. And Brazilian Ricardo Tamuro's Bacchus has much to complain about from his ill fitting wig to a comedy troupe and anything else he can think of.

The wig maker, George Newton-Fitzgerald, by the way, has to be seen to be believed . .  daaahlings. Leather pants and all. Camp is hardly in it.

Operatic diva Ariadne, Orla Boylan, (left) is less than impressed with the advice on love from  music hall turn Zerbinetta, Gillian Keith

The comedy troupe are lead by Zerbinetta who is sung beautifully by Gillian Keith and her aria Großmächtige Prinzessin (high and mighty princess) is one of the highlights as she and her troupe of excellent comics Harlequin (Owen Webb), Scaramuccio (Aled Hall), Truffaldino (Julian Close) and Brighelia (Wynne Evans) extract every possible laugh from it. Their advice to the suicidal Ariadne is when one bloke dumps you find another one quick.

Which brings us to the finale of the opera within an opera where Ariadne, abandoned on Nexos by Theseus, and wanting to die, amid interruptions by Zerbinetta and her band, comes face to face with the god Bacchus which produces a rather moving final duet which ends with a brilliantly effective light show of stars on the backdrop as everyone lives happily ever after.

The orchestra conducted by Lothor Koenigs were, as usual, excellent.  It is not an opera where you will meander home humming some well known tune  in your head but at least you will have a smile on your face, and that can't be bad.

Tonight (Nov 10) and Friday (12) sees Fedilio while Thursday (Nov 11)and Saturday (13) sees The Magic Flute from WNO at the Hippodrome.

Roger Clarke  

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