Fresh from a happy introduction to opera English-style at Glyndebourne this summer, where his production of Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide won many admirers, German director Christof Loy is about to sample the rather headier and sometimes troubled atmosphere of London's Royal Opera House. Much will be riding on Loy's new production of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, so it is perhaps just as well that he is – so far – enjoying himself. "I feel very well protected here," he enthuses. "In a big opera house like this, there is a machinery of so many people and they can sometimes forget what it's all about. But here we feel as if we are on artistic islands. We only have to think about work."
Ariadne kicks off the musical directorship of Antonio Pappano at the Royal Opera in a season which also includes new productions of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito and Verdi's I masnadieri, and the world premiere of Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice. Since Ariadne touches on the tribulations of putting on an opera, it is perhaps an appropriate curtain-raiser for an house which has seen its fair share of problems. Written in 1912 and revised in 1916, Ariadne auf Naxos sits in Strauss's output between the gaudy luxuriance of Der Rosenkavalier and the mind-bendingly abstruse Die Frau ohne Schatten, and strikes a note of light relief that may be welcome at Covent Garden.
In brief, Ariadne sits forlornly outside her cave on Naxos, deserted by Theseus, longing for death but about to be swept off her feet by the god Bacchus. So far, as per the legend. Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's original stroke was to cast their opera as a play set in the home of the richest man in Vienna, where as an evening entertainment an opera called Ariadne auf Naxos is to be performed. Also on the bill is a performance by a troupe of commedia dell'arte actors, and in a moment of waggish caprice the rich patron decides the two should be performed simultaneously. A prologue deals with the consternation surrounding the evening's events, with all the ego flexing one finds at any theatrical representation. Eventually the opera depicting Ariadne's plight is performed, with numerous interjections from the comedy troupe.
It sounds tortuous, but is wonderfully witty and lucid in performance and gives Strauss a chance to comment drily on artistic patronage, the crosses borne by artists, the imperious philistinism of rich men's lackeys; it even portrays a beleaguered composer whose high-flown ideals are shatteringly brought down to earth. But according to Christof Loy, the heart of the piece is not its satirical targets.
"The subject wasn't chosen to make a statement about opera," he claims. "It deals with the complicated idea of what transformation in life means. Every second in our lives transformations take place whether we want it or not. Ariadne is a woman who tries to remain faithful after Theseus has left her. She tries to keep alive her love, which for her means until death. But although Ariadne thinks she is moving away from life, she actually goes to a new love. Life is sometimes based on the necessity to keep our dignity by being faithful to the past and to tradition, and at the same time not to close our eyes in front of an unknown which seems risky. That is the essential theme."
How will Ariadne appear, with its eclectic mix of stage play and opera, and prima donnas side by side with clowns? "In style and aesthetics, the prologue and the opera are completely different," says Loy. "The prologue is much more down to earth, more realistic, and the opera is more poetic."
But more specific details will require the purchase of a ticket. "It's not a secret, but my words would be much too poor," Loy says. "I like to talk about ideas and conceptions but I think a director should be like a painter before the exhibition: he should never say, 'You'll see this and that and that.' The audience should supply their own ideas. Otherwise they may be disappointed."
'Ariadne auf Naxos', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) Friday to 26 Sept; Radio 3, live, 21 Sept, 1pm