OPERA / Laid back: Nicholas Williams reviews Ariadne auf Naxos and The Beggar's New Clothes

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If mourning becomes Elektra, does indolence suit Ariadne? Apparently so, in Jonathan Miller's new production of Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, premiered on Monday at the Broomhill Trust's First International Opera Course.

The second of the composer's Hellenic leading ladies, devised with his librettist Hofmannstahl, she was a sullen creature at the best of times, jilted by her lover Theseus, confined to her island and brooding on death. But played by soprano Rachel Sparer (clearly a budding Isolde), she was positively somniferous. In the opera proper, clad in flowing purple robes like some Victorian Boadicea, she rose occasionally from the length of a comfortable chaiselongue to consider the matter of her fate. In the Prologue, wide-eyed, garbed in orange, she entered wraith-like from time to time, singing little but casting visual aspersions on the other performers with the hauteur of a real-life prima donna.

No doubt this was all part of the overall verismo, flowing from the careful integration with which Miller's production cultivated its surroundings: the 19th century theatre surviving pristine and intact at David Salomons Estate near Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

Acoustically exceptional, with a high proscenium, deep stage and plethora of stage equipment on view in the battens and flies, this small private theatre was the ideal location for the plot of a work about back-stage and front-stage rivalries - at a small private theatre. The chaise longue itself looked like one of the actual fixtures of the house. The backdrop - painted tie-back curtains with exquisitely executed pleats and swags - had a battered appearance that was either a magnificent trompe-d'oeil, or the result of being an original theatrical property.

Against this setting, and the mirrors, tables and dressing- room clutter of the Prologue, the cast of young performers moved with commendable professionalism. There was an element of 20th century Harlequinade in the Chaplinesque costumes and attitudes of the opera buffa troups, well acted and sung by William Dazeley, Matthew Hargreaves and Stephen Chaundy.

Rein Kolpa's Dancing Master - dapper, moustachioed, hyper- camp - provided a more contemporary vein of outrageous pantomime that deliciously counterpointed the overheated egos of the Composer (a travesty role) and the Music Master, sung by Teresa Shaw and Andrew Griffiths.

With Sharon Rostorf's Zerbinetta they formed an ideal partnership in the light, whimsical dialogue of the first part, with additional excitement from Andrew Hambley-Smith's MajorDomo and Stephen Holloway's effete Wig Maker. And if the Composer and Zerbinetta's passion was less than white-hot in comparison with that of Ariadne and Bacchus (sung by Nicholas Buxton) in the closing scene, then perhaps it was more true. For the Prologue's music is vintage Strauss - perhaps the best: never hooked on its own seriousness, yet full of genuine Straussian sentiment and vitality in perfect combination.

By contrast, the final duet can sound overdone, a Wagnerian love duet for an elegant, if artificial, attraction.

In this case, its salvation was the expert direction of the Britten Sinfonia by Nicholas Cleobury. He was sensitive to the nuances both of the work's conversational and heroic modes, and their balance. He conducts throughout, but Monday's cast swaps with fellow students on alternate days for this eight-day run.

Like the theatre itself, this is a production that is full of surprises.