At Garsington Opera, a new production of this tongue-in-cheek look at high art and low comedy is staged by the director who gave us Culture Whisper's opera of the year in 2021, its voluptuous Der Rosenkavalier, also by Strauss.
Were we going to get another drop-dead-gorgeous visual feast, or would Bruno Ravella take us in another direction? The answer is a forked road: on the one hand, the resolution is lusciously romantic, with a touch of La La Land in its couple on a park bench under a night sky. On the other, Giles Cadle’s design is spare: a suite of doors and a staircase.
Jennifer France as Zerbinetta and the vaudevillians. Photo: Clive Barda
This is the year of the staircase. Up and down they go in Glyndebourne’s new Don Giovanni. Down and up they go in the Royal Opera House’s Il Trovatore. While first-nighters were enjoying Ariadne, other music-lovers were glued to the final of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Congratulations to its overall winner, the sumptuous Italian bass Adolfo Corrado. If he wants a career in opera, I hope he’s got good knees.
Busiest stair-climbers at Garsington are the vaudeville troupe who have been booked for a wealthy man’s birthday entertainment, to follow a new, short opera. But Sir wants fireworks at 10pm: the two companies must combine their entertainments for speed.
The possibilities are endless, when a bunch of clowns join a bunch of opera singers (no jokes, please) but Ravella barely has the two groups overlap beyond their collisions in the score. In the mini-opera, loved-up Ariadne and Bacchus head for the stars, and the vaudevillians vanish.
Bacchus (Young Woo Kim) washes ashore on Naxos. Photo: Clive Barda
A low-key production, then, with a slightly mid-century look and wondrous singing from the principals: Welsh-Ukrainian soprano Natalya Romaniw luscious in the ever-increasing depths of her voice as broken-hearted Ariadne, coloratura soprano Jennifer France as vivacious trouper Zerbinetta, South Korean-born tenor Young Woo Kim as Bacchus, who washes up on the shores of Naxos and falls for Ariadne, and mezzo-soprano Polly Leach as the indignant, high-minded Composer.
We meet Composer, along with other nameless characters in the play-like Prologue, where the saucy comics meet the sceptical opera set. Team Opera features the beautifully combined performances as Naiad, Dryad and Echo of Claire Lees, Siân Griffiths and Harriet Eyley, Ariadne’s backing group.
Even with two clown consultants on board, Team Vaudeville’s four stooges don’t get quite the same chance to shine. A stage-upon-the-stage hems them in, and their props are rather restrained.
Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, Natalya Romaniw as Ariadne and Innocent Masuku as Brighella. Photo: Julian Guidera
The audience enjoyed a gull swooping down for a clown’s giant ice cream. And pardon me, but surely it should have been a red kite. These magnificent birds soaring over the grounds at Garsington are more daring every season. So far this summer they have claimed counter-tenor Iestyn Davies’s prawns, my Times colleague Neil Fisher’s salt beef bagel and, as of last night, my picnic cheese.
A piece of cheddar is a small price to pay to come face to face with one of these magnificent birds, but even so, Garsington-goers, hang on to your crackers.
And yes, go. Kim is a powerful new voice which will be heard in bigger houses and Romaniw’s golden timbre is always a joy. France will give the red kites something to think about with her top E (that’s the E above the A that most of us amateur sopranos can manage with a fair wind). Mark Wigglesworth conducts the Philharmonia Orchestra in this shimmering score.
Composer (Polly Leach) finds a compromise with Zerbinetta (Jennifer France). Photo: Clive Barda
First a romp, then a romance, Ariadne is really about marrying integrity with teamwork. It’s not just about putting on a show; it’s about living ethically.
Ariadne auf Naxos is sung in German with English surtitles. Further performances are on 29 June; 1, 6, 14, 19, and 21 July
|Ariadne auf Naxos, Garsington Opera review
|Garsington Opera, Wormsley Estate , Stokenchurch, HP14 3YG | MAP
18 Jun 23 – 21 Jul 23, Six performances remaining. Start time 6:20PM. Running time 3hr 45min, including 90-minute dinner interval
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