Opera is all about relationships. Relationships between a company and its audience, its artists, its orchestra, its repertoire and its peers, and the subtle relationships between different operas.
Opera Holland Park has long enjoyed a reputation for successfully producing rarities by Mascagni, Montemezzi, Zandonai, Giordano and Catalani, and encouraging an appetite for forgotten or unfamiliar work.
Now, in its first full co-production with Scottish Opera, whose recent staging of Jonathan Dove’s Flight was based on OHP’s critically acclaimed 2015 production, the company begins to explore a new strand of repertoire with Richard Strauss’s backstage comedy of high ideals and greasepaint pragmatism, Ariadne auf Naxos, directed and designed by Antony MacDonald, with Jennifer France as the sexually liberated comedienne, Zerbinetta.
Where Oliver Platt’s 2016 production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola opened in Holland Park before transferring to Denmark, and Martin Lloyd Evans’s UK premiere production of Mascagni’s Isabeau will be seen here before its revival by New York City Opera in 2019, Ariadne aux Naxos opened in Glasgow, Scotland, in late March to enthusiastic reviews from The Herald and The Arts Desk. Keith Bruce of the Herald gave the performance 5 stars, describing the production as ‘a masterclass in perfect casting’, and praising McDonald’s ‘stylish’ staging.
To most members of the audiences in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the Jacobean elevation at the rear of MacDonald’s production will have represented nothing more than the exterior of the home of the wealthy patron who has commissioned the two rival entertainments in Strauss’s opera.
To those opera lovers who travel regularly across the UK for business or pleasure, however, that backdrop will have been immediately recognisable as Holland House. Putting a Kensington landmark on stage in Scotland says much about the closeness of this collaboration.
As OHP’s Director of Opera, James Clutton, explains, a co-production is about much more than shared costs and a consequent increase in the budget for singers, costumes and sets. It means full creative involvement and an equal partnership in decisions over casting, concept and design, from the first meetings between him, OHP’s General Director Michael Volpe and Scottish Opera’s General Director Alex Reedijk, to the first night, with the added opportunity to revise and refine details of the staging when rehearsals begin in London for this summer’s performances in Holland Park.
Clutton had long wanted to work with MacDonald and “knowing that Jenni would do Zerbinetta was a big thing”. Another coup was signing the legendary actress Eleanor Bron for the speaking role of the Party Planner, a producer in all but name. There’s a pleasing irony in two opera companies working together to produce a screwball comedy about backstage tantrums and professional rivalry in which two troupes are forced to perform on stage together at a grand party.
Strauss’s Prologue is deliberately absurd in its exaggerated portraits of the egotistical Prima Donna who will sing the role of Ariadne, the insecure Tenor who will play Bacchus, the idealistic young Composer, and the street-smart, wise-cracking burlesque troupe that is led by the flirtatious Zerbinetta.
Arguments over which entertainment should be performed first are brought to an abrupt end when dinner overruns. A firework display is scheduled for 9pm precisely and, as the Party Planner points out, a solution must be found or no-one will be paid. Thus the premiere of a tragic opera becomes an unlikely romantic comedy, punctuated by vaudeville numbers and a coloratura show-stopper for France, who was last seen at OHP as Adele in Lloyd Evans’s 2016 production of Die Fledermaus.
The situation faced by the characters in the Prologue of Ariadne will resonate with anyone who has worked in the theatre. OHP has had to think on its feet and improvise when inclement weather has forced al fresco performances of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland indoors, or when performers have fallen ill.
Artistic temperaments aside, it could happen in any workplace. As Clutton, who compares Strauss’s comedy to Alan Ayckbourn’s farce, Noises Off, and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love, says, “The show must always go on. The concept of Ariadne is ridiculous to a degree but we’ve all experienced variations of it. It’s a more universal experience than we think.” There is added weight to Ariadne aux Naxos as the first Strauss opera to be produced by OHP. “It’s another flag in the ground”, says Clutton, “It feels like another level of exploration. It’s about testing oneself and the company and where you can go. It’s nice to have a wider palette.”
It also has an interesting connection to this season’s Italian rarity, Isabeau. As General Director Michael Volpe observes, it was the music of Strauss and his predecessor Wagner that inspired many of Italy’s giovane scuola composers to experiment with a bolder harmonic palette: “A lot of people think of Strauss as elegant and grand, but when you listen to Ariadne you begin to see where composers like Montemezzi, like Wolf-Ferrari, like Mascagni, began to draw their influences. This is who they were listening to.”
Mascagni had declared himself a Wagnerian in 1905. In the season before the world premiere of Isabeau he conducted Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in Rome and had planned to stage Strauss’s Elektra there but was put off by the cost. The famous ‘Tristan Chord’ duly appears in the score of Isabeau but the transalpine influence worked both ways. At the German premiere of Cavalleria rusticana, the critic Hans Merian wrote that “Mascagni belongs to us; he is the full sense of the word a ‘modern’ artist”.
What was meant by modernity differed from country to country. The craze for compact, visceral operas that started when Edoardo Sonzogno’s stable of verismo operas was produced at the Prater in Vienna in 1892 found expression in Duke Ernst II of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha’s 1893 competition to find a German Cavalleria. Of more than one hundred and twenty entries, not one achieved the international success of Mascagni’s opera or Leoncavallo’s clever answer to it, Pagliacci.
Where Puccini had been primed as heir apparent to Verdi by the publisher Giulio Ricordi, ensuring a smooth continuation in an art form that was vital to Italian cultural identity, the leading composers in Germany and Austria after Wagner’s death were symphonists. Strauss was the exception: a composer of vividly descriptive orchestral tone poems whose first major operas, Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909), were both composed in one act.
After the opulent beauty of his next opera, Der Rosenkavalier, the wit, economy, humanity and stylistic sleight of hand (from ragtime to bel canto to Wagnerian love music) in Ariadne auf Naxos represented another seismic reinvention, even if it took two attempts to get it right. After its vexed metamorphosis from an appendage to a 1912 production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme to the sung Prologue and Opera of 1916 that we will hear this summer, the score of Ariadne aux Naxos was compared to “fireworks in a beautiful park, one enchanted, all too fleeting summer night” by its librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl.” As Tim Ashley, the Guardian critic and Strauss biographer, points out, “it is entirely appropriate that it should be the first of Strauss’s works to enter Opera Holland Park’s repertory.”
To Volpe, who lists the Act 3 trio from Der Rosenkavalier and Beim Schlafengehen from Strauss’s Four Last Songs among his favourite works, it is a logical extension of OHP’s work with the giovane scuola composers: “The chromatic scales in Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and in Montemezzi’s music especially, we’ve been listening to this for twenty years at Holland Park. This is where it came from. So now we’re going back to the origins of that sound.”
Does this mean we can look forward to more German repertoire at OHP? “What we hope to achieve with Strauss, as we did with Janácek, is an introduction to a new canon,” says Volpe. “I think what we can look forward to in Ariadne is a new aesthetic, like the Britten was for us. There had never been an atmosphere like that at Holland Park before The Turn of the Screw.”
Is he confident that the audience will agree? “Yes. The audience who have been with us for the last fifteen years or more know that we don’t put on pipsqueak, falling-down-the-stairs music. They trust us. They know that we are not going to put on an opera that isn’t beautiful.”