We are in a large tent on the grounds of a school in Inverleith, Edinburgh as a pared-down Royal Scottish National Orchestra prepares for this new concert staging of Ariadne auf Naxos for the Edinburgh International Festival. There’s a familiar buzz of excitement despite this year’s Covid restrictions making for a different kind of festival experience. The conductor is Lothar Koenigs, music director of Welsh National Opera from 2009 to 2016. One of the highlights of his time at WNO was bringing Tristan und Isolde to the festival in 2012. This is director Louisa Muller’s EIF debut. It follows an award-winning international debut at Garsington Opera in 2019.
Ariadne auf Naxos began life in 1912 as Austrian prodigy Hugo van Hoffmansthal’s adaptation of Le bourgeois gentilhomme (Molière’s 17th century comédie-ballet satire on cultural snobbery). Incidental music and an operatic postlude were composed by Richard Strauss with libretto by Hauffmansthal. However, it grew to be a lengthy and conflicting work – the theatre element was removed for a 1916 revised version for Vienna State Opera.
The theme of cultural snobbery remains dominant here with opera seria viewed as a ‘high art’ compared to ‘low art’ commedia dell’arte. This fits well with a contemporary audience accustomed to mash-ups and remixes. Even today, serious art is typically considered a higher form than comedy and we are still debating these assumptions.
This is an opera in two parts. Firstly, the 45-minute prologue sets out a farcical backstage scenario forcing two theatrical troupes to perform simultaneously at a party to allow for a scheduled firework display. The second part performs this simultaneous mash-up of serious opera and comedy entertainment. Sung in German with English supertitles, a select cast of renowned and award-winning singers navigate this opera-within-an-opera format.
Internationally renowned German soprano Dorothea Röschmann gives an impeccable performance as Greek mythological princess Ariadne. She’s been abandoned on the island of Naxos by her lover Theseus and longs for death in the arias Wo war ich? (Where was I?) and Es gibt ein Reich (There is a realm). English National Opera tenor David Butt Philip, as Bacchus, arrives on a ship having escaped from the enchantress Circe. Ariadne believes death has finally come for her and ends up finding love and solace with Bacchus. Whilst the seriousness of the operatic angst is playing out authentically, we can equally delight in the failed attempts of the comedy troupe – and its leader Zerbinetta – to cheer Ariadne up.
Zerbinetta, performed by American soprano Brenda Rae, gives a mesmerising and sparkling coloratura vocal throughout. It’s no surprise that this is one of Rae’s signature roles. She impresses with Großmächtige Prinzessin (High and mighty princess). Zerbinetta advises Ariadne on the simplest way to mend a broken heart – stop moping and quickly yield to a new lover. Zerbinetta returns to repeat her philosophy of love just as Ariadne engages in the finale, a rousing and emotional duet with Bacchus.
Highlights include an appearance from bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff as the Major Domo and the contrasting choruses of watchful nymphs and dancing comedy players. Mezzo-soprano Catriona Morison, Edinburgh’s home-grown talent, shines as the Composer. She won the coveted main prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition in 2017. Morison produces an impressive aria Sein wir wieder gut! (Let’s be friends again) and duet with Zerbinetta.
There is an expert balance of tone throughout the production, steadily navigating the chaos without slipping into caricature. The lyrics explain how human complexities can scupper the simple enjoyment of being alive. Also, how others see us is often not who we really are. Aside from the conflict of high art versus low art and pretentiousness versus true nature, there is an exploration of that conflict of the inner self. We each have within us a capacity for solitary despair or to carry a lighter load and find joy wherever it presents itself.
In turn, Zerbinetta too reflects on how she is perceived by others. As she sings of “how poorly a heart knows itself” we are compelled to self-reflect too. This contemplation fills the air as we emerge silently from our physically distanced seating, our tears drying off in the cool breeze of a late summer Edinburgh night.
This performance will also be available to watch online free of charge, from Sun 29 Aug to Sun 27 Feb.
With grateful thanks to Artmag contributor Julie Boyne for this review.