Classical Music: Live Review/ Castleward Opera Northern Ireland

You can't win 'em all: after a steady rise in quality over the years, Castleward Opera has come a relative cropper with Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, one of the two operas in its 1996 programme. As Castleward has proved more than once on its tiny stage, size isn't everything, and even with such a grandiose piece as Ariadne, director Nicolette Molnr almost pulled it off. Unfortunately, in place of the opera's balanced play-off between the demands (and pretensions) of High Art and those of the box-office, she allowed the latter, in the form of the comedy troupe of Harlequin and Co, to hog the stage.

It was done quite wittily, with the comedians suddenly throwing open shutters in unexpected places or stripping down to bathing suits to put the Naxos beach to good use. But it killed the sublime high art of the last half-hour or so - after Bacchus' arrival - stone-dead. We were left with a very boring scene indeed, not helped by a less than perfect orchestral rendition (under Valentin Reymond) and - far worse - Virginia Kerr's appalling diction as Ariadne. The star of the evening, as so often, was the Zerbinetta, sung by the very promising young Susannah Waters. In her fiendishly difficult aria, "Grossmachtige Prinzessin", she scarcely showed any sign of strain, even when (occasionally) singing on her back. Small and agile, she is also a good comic actress.

Designer Keith Gray deserves a mention: he not only adroitly created a convincing trompe-l'oeil set, but also achieved an impressive coup de theatre for Bacchus' entrance by having the set divide to allow the god through.

This year's second offering, Puccini's La Boheme, was on surer ground, although I have never seen quite so small a Cafe Momus. (Still, they did get almost everyone on stage, even the children; only the band was left to our imagination.) Tom Hawkes's directorial hand was a little too light at times, but the main characters were largely convincing, Mark Luther as Rodolfo in particular: here, for once, was a tenor who really did seem interested in his Mimi (Fiona O'Neill, who also sang well), although he should work a little more on volume control: singing everything at the same level tends to get boring.

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