Greece: the opera

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Opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

Theatre Royal Glasgow

LAST year at the Edinburgh Festival, Scottish Opera presented the 1912 version of Ariadne auf Naxos. Now they stage the 1916 version, in which Hofmannsthal and Strauss's prologue replaces Moliere's play. The work's problematic history is sometimes reflected in performance: when "the richest man in Vienna" orders that the commedia dell'arte troupe intrude into the world of opera seria, it occasionally seems as though the brittle comedy and self-indulgent tragedy bring out the worst in each other.

Conductor Richard Armstrong favoured leisurely tempi, which gave room to breathe and emphasised the sensuous qualities of Strauss's music. Zerbinetta's coloratura was never merely spiky - Lisa Saffer displayed an almost flawless technique and, just as important, a feisty, fearless stage presence. The interpretation paid dividends during the work's disproportionate climax, when the abandoned Ariadne assumes Bacchus is Hermes, the messenger of death, while the god greets her as another Circe. Wave upon wave of erotically charged music flooded up from the pit and the stage: Anne Evans was in radiant form in the title role. She has the rare gift of authenticity; every note and every word count and communicate as truth. Bacchus is notoriously one of Strauss's least grateful tenor parts but John Horton Murray was so much at ease in the role that he enjoyed himself with infectiously bacchic abandon.

When Richard Strauss contemplated the opera's end, he worried that a chamber orchestra "would be inadequate for my Dionyisiac urges". At one point he considered adding a full orchestra. Here the musicians relished all the demands the score makes on their soloistic capacities and then rose to the challenge of that long climax; it was overwhelming in intensity.

Martin Duncan's witty and daft production made the two worlds interact from the beginning. The action was updated to around 1930, and Tim Hatley's designs acknowledged, and even celebrated, a certain element of kitsch in the opera itself. The cast was generally strong, all the way from Nigel Douglas's brilliantly observed Major-Domo, though the busy harlequinade, down to Peter Bronder's idiomatic Dancing Master and Richard Morris's hyperactive Wigmaker. Only the Composer and Music Master seemed cast against the score in terms of their age, and Diana Montague recovered from a nervous start to deliver an intense, moving salute to "the holy art of music". Sean Welsh's choreography often illuminated the music, as when the three nymphs posed against pillars or moved into post-rite of spring attitudes, or when Harlequin (the impressive baritone David Stephenson) enticed Echo (Anna-Clare Monk) into his stage routine. Perhaps the richest man in Vienna had a point.

Further performances: Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141-332 9000) 21, 24, 26, 28 March; Edinburgh Festival Theatre (0131-529 6000) 14, 16, 18 April.

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