OPERA / Mixed company: David Patrick Stearns on Ariadne auf Naxos

RICHARD Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, an 'opera within an opera' that first depicts the backstage chaos and then shows the on-stage result, has remained a unique juxtaposition of musical theatre elements. As pretentious 18th-century opera seria singers are forced to share the stage with a commedia dell'arte troupe, the rarefied and the coarse, the obvious and the subtle, the artificial and the real rub shoulders in a way that might have intrigued Bertolt Brecht while delighting more conservative opera-goers with its dry wit.

The Metropolitan Opera's previous production sought to establish a common denominator amongst it all. But in Elijah Moshinsky's new production, with sets by Michael Yeargan, the differences are more dramatically highlighted. On the evidence of Thursday's opening night, the result is a stunning show, in which even the most spun-out moments in the opera are prevented from seeming static.

The odd collection of creatures on stage, particularly in the 'Ariadne' opera proper, rivals that of Patrice Chereau's Das Rheingold. Ariadne's trio of female sympathisers, Najade, Dryade and Echo, for example, in their tie-dyed, elevated hoop skirts, tower 12 to 15 feet high. The commedia troupe wander about the stage sharing the audience's sense of amazement. The cliff surrounding Ariadne's grotto is a series of eight jagged smoked mirrors. They look smart and modern while contrasting with the panels in the back of the stage, opening to reveal, alternately, pink rococo clouds and blazing orange sunsets.

The production brought out the cross-references between the prologue and opera proper: the unlikely attraction between the hypersensitive Composer and the vaudevillian Zerbinetta, for example, forshadows Ariadne and Bacchus with their mixture of terror and libido, brought out especially in Susanne Mentzer's finely sung and well-wrought interpretation of the Composer. Ariadne's gargantuan attendants meanwhile referred, perhaps, to Strauss's quotation of the Rheingold Fafner music in the Ariadne prologue.

Jessye Norman is a welcome and familiar presence in the title role, especially in the prologue when her diva tantrums reveal her seldom-seen comic talents. She wasn't in her best voice on Thursday, but her artistry in the role has deepened, thanks especially to a more natural, unaffected way with the words. The biggest triumph of the evening, however, was Ruth Ann Swenson as Zerbinetta. Long a dependable soubrette, she sang here with a bewitching artistry that contrasted tellingly with a cheap, tart-like appearance. As Bacchus, Thomas Moser sang with such impressive musicianship one hardly noticed the lack of lustre in his voice. Conductor Ion Marin made the subtle colours of Strauss's score more vivid than the composer intended, but the Met is a quite big house for what is essentially a chamber opera.

'Ariadne auf Naxos' continues at the Metropolitan Opera in New York until 8 April

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