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13th March 2023

Review: Opera North – Ariadne auf Naxos

Opera North’s adaptation of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos had moments of brilliance whilst falling prey to the familiar trope of trying to do everything everywhere all at once
Review: Opera North – Ariadne auf Naxos
Photo: Richard H Smith

My fascination for the opera began as a bright-eyed undergraduate student who was tasked with reviewing Verdi’s La Traviata. Unfazed by a language that was incomprehensible to me and intrigued by the possibility of witnessing an art form that, in this day and age, clearly splits opinion, I packed my notebook and trudged off to Manchester Opera House. While the experience wasn’t transformative in any manner, it certainly didn’t put me off to the point where I wouldn’t want to give it another shot.

Fast forward a few years, I found myself learning German and being drawn to the incredible poetry set to classical music in the form of Lieder. It was around this time I learnt that operas weren’t just trivial forms of entertainment but were in fact the espousal of various philosophical streams of thought that were prominent during the time of their writing. Lieder were expressions of romantic ideals — passionate love, untamed nature, intuitive, and emotive thought — that were united in a singular piece of work.

Photo: Richard H Smith

To me, these weren’t abstract concepts discussed and expressed by dead figures from history. They were the written and musical manifestations of the very same feelings each one of us has experienced throughout our lives; especially when in love, or recently out of it, amidst nature or longing for it or even when one was simply overwhelmed by emotions.

The words and the accompanying music were an expression I couldn’t quite devise myself, but nonetheless, in those moments, they resonated with me despite the foreign language and a lack of understanding of the musical scales. Instead of making the feelings feel scary or something to be curtailed, they provided an outlet for them that was otherwise lacking.

However, one complaint always remained, I had never witnessed them sung live. I always wondered whether one could get such goosebumps during a live performance as one does hearing a recording perfected after several takes? Needless to say, when the opportunity to review a piece composed by one of the stalwarts of the Romantic age presented itself, I leaped upon it. But walking away at the end of the performance, I was left thoroughly disappointed.

Photo: Richard H Smith

Opera North’s Ariadne auf Naxos at The Lowry has several individual elements that could make this an outstanding production. It certainly has the singing talents of the magnificent Elizabeth Llewellyn (as Ariadne/Prima Donna), a terrific tenor in Ric Furman, who plays Bacchus, and the stupendous soprano Jennifer France as Zerbinetta.

The libretto, while translated into English for much of the Prologue, features several ruminations upon the nature of love, devotion, solitude, nature of music, along with a few self referential jokes. The set design is stunning, and the score is composed by none other than Richard Strauss himself.

Despite that, the production falls prey to the familiar trope of trying to do Everything Everywhere All at Once, and it is not until after the interval things calm down and we can fully relish in the singing. At least when the orchestra allows it. For most of the production, it seemed to be engaged in a constant competition with the singers, often winning by just being louder. Then again, I am not sure if it’s the production’s fault as my previous experiences with the acoustics of The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre have been just the same.

To add insult to the injury, when one does hear the singing, occasionally one is greeted by the German pronunciation being off or the accompanying translation being fairly banal (maybe English just isn’t as expressive for some phrases).

Photo: Richard H Smith

Having said that, there are still moments of brilliance that punctuate an otherwise lacklustre performance, particularly in Zerbinetta’s solo, Großmächtige Prinzessin, and in Bacchus and Ariadne’s duet. Nonetheless, one bad performance is no reason to write off a fantastic company that has done a lot to make opera far more accessible and boasts a backstage full of impressive talents whose next performances I cannot wait to watch!


Opera North’s Ariadne auf Naxos tours the UK until March 24.

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