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.