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Ariadne auf Naxos review at Glyndebourne, Lewes – ‘soprano Lise Davidsen soars’

The cast of Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival. Photo: Robert Workman The cast of Ariadne auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival. Photo: Robert Workman
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Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal struggled to agree on an approach to Ariadne auf Naxos and the conflict can be felt in the structure and tone of the final version.

Hoffmansthal envisaged a short opera combining heroic mythological figures with characters from commedia dell’arte; the added Prologue created the context of an entertainment at a rich man’s dinner party, and Ariadne became an opera-within-an-opera.

Hence the queasy lurches of tone between slapstick action and music hall ditties, and Wagnerian, high-flown arias on the nature of love and art. The London Philharmonic Orchestra makes a virtue of this feast of musical styles under their eager young conductor, Cornelius Meister.

Katharina Thoma’s 2013 production is distinguished by a lavish set that resembles Glyndebourne’s drawing room in the 1940s. In Act II, the bomb-damaged room has become a hospital ward and Ariadne’s attendants are army nurses who sing like angels.

The dramatic logic of Thoma’s production ceases to matter when Ariadne, the Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, unveils a soprano of astonishing fullness and beauty. Her voice and character make a colourful contrast with the pert, petite coloratura of Erin Morley as Zerbinetta, who disguises her own heartache with jokey flirtation. In the trouser role of the Composer, Angela Brower gives a tuneful account of a priggish character, the protégé of Thomas Allen’s Music Master.

Zerbinetta leads a concert party of blazered men, whose song and dance routines are cleverly choreographed by Lucy Burge. Ariadne’s love interest, Bacchus, (AJ Glueckert) makes a late appearance as Biggles, in unflattering flying suit, but woos Ariadne in a burst of tenor splendour. Their consummation is unintentionally comic, an awkward fumble on a small iron bedstead. Commedia dell’arte triumphs over high art in the end.

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Soprano Lise Davidsen soars over an otherwise excellent cast in Strauss’s clash of comedy and high art