WNO Autumn Season 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos, Fidelio and Magic Flute
New Theatre, Tue November 30th - Sun December 5th 2010

December 3, 2010
Ariadne Auf Naxos
As the curtain rose, it looked like the New Theatre had forgotten to install its backdrops, leaving the grimy innards of backstage shockingly visible. To expose tender opera-lovers to the botox that keeps Dame Theatre smiling seemed heartless, bordering on reckless, surely risking a spluttering coronary among the stuffier members of the audience. Yet before us, wardrobers flounced, divas pouted, maestros suffered nervous breakdowns, and technicians hung around wondering if they could pop out for a fag.

It was, of course, a beautifully realised set design for the Welsh National Opera's new production of Ariadne Auf Naxos. Strauss's opera is set at the performance of an opera, a wonderful conceit which the director, Neil Armfield, has fully embraced.  Or rather, at the performance of two operas, as the philistine patron who has commissioned the tragic Ariadne to entertain his dinner guests has had a last-minute attack of nerves. Therefore, as the aghast cast is informed by an implacable major-domo, their performance is to be followed by a comic opera-buffo. Cue the arrival of a pizza-scoffing chorus of clownish harlequins, and the explosion of Ariadne's composer (Imelda Drumm).

Ariadne is a marvellously playful piece of opera, dripping with self-awareness and a kind of ironic joy. Strauss seems to wink from every line of the libretto, and when the music master (Robert Poulton) reminds the composer of the sixty ducats awaiting the company, it's hard not to see their excellent duet as one between Strauss the elder and Strauss the younger. The composer's immediate infatuation with the opera buffo's brazen lead lady Zerbinetta (Gillian Keith) takes on an especially comic tinge in this light.

It's in this theatre-within-the-theatre playacting that much of Ariadne's charm lies. The company has great fun with this, even as the second half sees us transported (via some distinctly tatty backdrops) to the desert island where Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus, entirely alone- except for a chorus of nymphs, a quartet of harlequins, Zerbinetta and Bacchus.

Orla Boylan makes for a stunning Ariadne, to be commended both for her magnificent voice and for her implacable composure. The temptation to corpse when surrounded by strutting clowns chucking fruit at each other on a desert island must have been extraordinary! Her final duet with Bacchus (Ricardo Tamura) lends the finale a touch of Wagnerian grandeur- enjoyable but slightly jarring after so much time spent with the opera buffo. The dissonance between the two is part of the piece, but they never quite mesh, often feeling like two halves of a fantastic opera vigorously shaken together.

The music is excellent, the performances pitch-perfect, and the stunning climax makes up for the slightly meandering path from the backstage to the beach. There was a sense of the performers enjoying their work shining through, which helped overcome the incogruity of the two operatic styles.

December 3, 2010
The Magic Flute
Handsome prince Tamino, lost in a magical land, is rescued from a hideous monster, then charged by the Queen of the Night to bring back her beautiful abducted daughter Pamina and win her hand in marriage. So begins a quest in which all is predictably not as it seems, where love is the ultimate goal and honour and truthfulness the way to prove oneself worthy of it.

The Magic Flute is a musical journey through a world of magic and possibility, and this is a gorgeous pantomime of a production, skipping blithely through a variety of genres and time-periods to create a fluent and engaging fantasy. Mozart’s masterpiece of light opera has rarely been off the stage since its 1791 premiere, but this Welsh National Opera production breathes fresh life into the piece, capturing the imagination of the audience with amusing antics and whimsical charm: a steampunk flying machine; unexpectedly saucy underwear; a lion reading the Financial Times. I have to say they had me on side from the outset with their wonderful interpretation of the monster which pursues Tamino at the beginning of Act 1.

The beautiful, rich voice of Peter Wedd creates a prince both warm-hearted and agreeably pompous, while Elizabeth Watts brings a combination of strength and innocence to the role of Pamina with some stand-out singing. David Stout and Claire Hampton made a great hit with the audience as Papageno and Papagena, and some of the duet and chorus parts were truly spine-tingling – I wish there had been more of them.

Sure, the libretto is short on literary merit, and the plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, although that’s hardly the point. The decision to sing an English translation was a mixed blessing – while it was great not to have to rely too heavily on the surtitles, it did remove the feeling of intellectual weight which is automatically gifted to a production in a foreign language. But then, who needs intellectual weight when you’re having fun, anyway? It hardly matters in the face of such splendid music and really clever, witty staging.

I’m not sure what the message of the Magic Flute is: ‘Women are great so long as you never believe a word they say’, maybe, or ‘Don’t tell fibs or we’ll come and get you’; but its success as first-class entertainment is not in dispute. Lovely.
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