Opera: The hit and myth approach

ALTHOUGH RICHARD Hickox called his City of London Sinfonia series "Greek Myths", links to the ancients mattered less than the opportunity to hear rare versions of operas familiar in different forms. Last Tuesday we got, more or less, Strauss's first (1912) version of Ariadne auf Naxos. It was prefaced, not by the complete text of Moliere's play Le bourgeois gentilhomme (to which the opera was a pendant, and for which Strauss provided frothily neo-classical incidental music), but by Nigel Douglas's rather thespy narration. An acceptable compromise given that Strauss's original plan (hatched with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal) resulted in an evening of super-Wagnerian length.

This was a concert performance, but had enough dramatisation to hold the eye as well as the ear. Hickox stuck strictly to Strauss's prescribed 37-piece orchestra, and having the players in full view instead of in the pit allowed air and light into the music. Moments of thin string-playing were more than compensated for by sheer verve, and for once we could hear just how much the harmonium contributes: a lot.

Hickox had a cast to grace any opera house, and most of the singers did without a score. Christine Brewer's Ariadne was radiantly secure, rising in full glory to the big moments, yet capable of the utmost delicacy. I've not heard her sing better. If the demands that Strauss makes of Zerbinetta in the familiar Ariadne are exorbitant, in this version they are practically illegal. Cyndia Sieden pinched a few notes, but got more of them than we have any right to expect, and her pert characterisation contrasted neatly with Brewer's more stately disposition. This Ariadne left me feeling that there might be a real opera here, rather than the silly parlour game it usually resembles.

Ten days earlier, Hickox gave the UK premiere of Strauss's 1931 edition of Mozart's Idomeneo, a real rarity, and no doubt destined to remain so. Strauss's efforts were misguided, but what he offered was a glimpse of Mozart through a thin but richly decorated veil, moments of nearly pure Mozart imperceptibly metamorphosing into nearly pure Strauss, and vice versa. Performed with passion, as here, Strauss's Idomeneo succeeds on its own terms. With another stellar cast, led by Kurt Streit as Idomeneo, Strauss in Mozart drag proved to be rather impressive. Shall we ever hear it again?