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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Richard Strauss, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos,’
new production première,
Welsh National Opera, Cardiff, 11th September 2004 (BK)

Conductor: Carlo Rizzi

Director: Neil Armfield
Designer: Dale Ferguson
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell

Choreographer: Denni Sayers

Welsh National Opera Orchestra


Major-Domo: Richard Van Allen

Music Master: Gerd Grochowski

Composer: Alice Coote
The Tenor / Bacchus: Peter Hoare
Lackey: Alistair Moore
Officer: Philip Pooley
Wig-Maker: George Newton-Fitzgerald
Zerbinetta: Katarzyna Dondalska

The Primadonna / Ariadne: Janice Watson
Dancing Master: Brian Galliford
Naiad: Gail Pearson
Dryad: Arlene Rolph
Echo: Elizabeth Donovan
Harlequin: D’Arcy Bleiker
Scaramuccio: Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks
Truffaldino: Tim Mirfin
Brighella: Wynne Evans


Photographs by Clive Barda



It’s funny, it’s rude and it’s a surefire winner. WNO’s autumn season (their last in Cardiff’s New Theatre) opened on Saturday with Neil Armfield’s new ‘Ariadne,’ another fine production for the company.


The plot is in two acts. In the first, a ‘prologue’ explains how a rich Viennese man commissions a new opera from a young composer to entertain his dinner guests. The opera tells of Ariadne’s abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos and is meant to be deadly serious. The composer is outraged when a major-domo announces that the opera will be followed by a Harlequinade and then fireworks, ‘at nine o’ clock precisely.’ Worse is to come: the rich man changes his mind decreeing that the performances must run simultaneously, with the opera punctuated by comedy. The composer explains to Zerbinetta, the Harlequins’ leader, that his tragedy will be ruined. Zerbinetta is not convinced and joins him in a duet in which the composer comes close to declaring that he loves her. The Composer sings finally of how music is the most sacred of all the arts.


When the ‘opera’ takes place in Act II, Ariadne languishes on Naxos watched by Naiad, Dryad and Echo. She sings of her grief and longing for death, while the comedians make fruitless attempts to cheer her up with comic songs and dancing. Zerbinetta tries again, as woman to woman - her experience is that that a new man heals any broken heart. Ariadne is doubtful until the youthful God Bacchus arrives having escaped the embraces of Circe. Ariadne first sees him as the messenger of death, but succumbs to his advances and is translated into a Goddess. Zerbinetta was right, and she says so.


Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s text is about how Art must coexist with Reality and somehow perhaps be reconciled; even if only through ‘mutual incomprehension’ as William Mann once put it. Neil Armfield deals with this by contrasting the back-stage life of the two theatre companies with their behaviours before an audience. In the Prologue, the opera singers (who are all pretty high-powered; their dressing chests have ‘Wien Kammersänger’ written on them) are self-important fools, made to look clown-like because of the pyjama coveralls that hide their costumes. The Harlequins are no-nonsense sort of people, grown-ups who are not fazed at all when their act must fit into the opera. ‘Hey,’ they seem to be saying, ‘It’s a show that’s all. We’re getting paid folks.’



In the opera section, the behaviours of the prologue are reversed: the opera singers are serious while the Harlequins play bawdy comedy. But Neil Armfield goes a step further than this because in this production, while the comedy is funny for its own sake for once, Ariadne herself makes it funnier. The expression of stunned resignation on Janice Watson’s face while being ‘cheered up’ by the Harlequins was not only hilarious but showed the link between the two disparate groups which is surely what Hofmannstahl had in mind. More than that however, the comedy (which was greatly appreciated by the audience) did not detract at all from the beauty of the Ariadne/Bacchus finale. The two co-existed in remarkable harmony.


To bring this all of this off of course (and it could have gone wrong easily) requires a strong cast of actor/ singers. Richard van Allen in the non-singing role of the Major-Domo set the tone from the outset; his excellent German and his explosive stresses on the word ‘Feuerwerke’ tickled many a rib and George Newton-Fitzgerald’s flouncing for Austria as the ultra-camp Wig-Maker added to the fun no end. The Prologue’s dominating figure is the Composer however, and to this difficult trouser – role Alice Coote brought convincing characterisation as well as particularly moving singing in both her duet with Zerbinetta and her song of praise to Music.


Katarzyna Dondalska is also a fine actress as her encounter with Harlequin and her other suitors showed in Act II. Her singing was at its best in its upper range and her scena with Ariadne flowed effortlessly from ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ through to ‘So war es mit Pagliazzo,’ taxing as these numbers are.


The men in the comedian troupe were all on good form too, with genuinely funny singing and dancing from all of them. D’Arcy Bleiker may fairly be singled out for his solo attempt to cheer Ariadne but Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks (Scaramuccio,) Tim Murfin (Truffaldino) and Wynne Evans (Brighella) were also in particularly good form. Not a note out of place and genuine comic talents, all four of them.




The last time I heard Janice Watson (in Royal Opera’s ‘Peter Grimes’) I broke the habit of a lifetime and called her singing ‘radiant.’ There was no other word though and there still isn’t, so I’m unrepentant: she was at her best once again in this performance. Having said that however, it will also be a long time before I forget her facial expression when the comedians were singing to her; one of the funniest things I’ve seen in years.


Lastly then, to Peter Hoare’s Bacchus which was extremely impressive both in his solo entry and the big duet with Ariadne. As difficult a role as any in the tenor repertory, and arguably more taxing than some Wagner, Bacchus takes its toll on many fine singers. There was no problem here though and well deserved congratulations are due to Peter Hoare for this performance.


It was good to see Carlo Rizzi back in the pit, once again as WNO’s Musical Director. The orchestra clearly appreciated his return and under his firm and skilfull hand rewarded both him and the audience with the fine playing that is their hallmark. A splendid evening.


Bill Kenny




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