Operabox’s ambitious production of Ariadne auf Naxos is destined to be remembered as a watershed moment for the grass roots opera company. The staging of Strauss’ rarely performed opera has established the company as an innovative and professional contributor to the WA opera scene. Featuring Melbourne tenor Henry Choo and soprano Fiona Jopson with award-winning theatre director Kathryn Osborne at the helm and Christopher Dragon in the pit this show generated high expectations and then went on to surpass them.

Ariadne (Fiona Jopson) with her Nymphs.

Strauss’ rarely performed ‘opera within an opera’ with libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal combines slapstick humour with glorious music. Osborne updates the action to the mansion of a ‘Forbes 500′ type where the premiere of an opera is thrown into disarray by the unexpected inclusion of a burlesque comedy group. The ash-strewn island of Naxos, a setting of isolation and mourning for the lovelorn Ariadne, is swiftly turned into a beachside resort as Zerbinetta and her clowns try to cheer up Ariadne (with colourfully coordinated set and costumes by Laura Heffernan and Rhiannon Walker). The arrival of the god Bacchus heralds Ariadne’s release into death. But in a light-hearted twist Osborne orchestrates for Ariadne to sneak away with one of the clowns during Bacchus’ grandiloquent closing aria.

Zerbinetta (Jenna Robertson) with her clowns.

Osborne exploits the comic aspects of the opera: the Composer and Music Master sit in the audience as spectators; Bacchus tosses his wig after finding bits of hair in his mouth and numerous subplots for the clowns include shark attacks and speedo modelling. The clincher is when the clown Truffaldin  sabotages Bacchus’s superficial wooing of Ariadne by using a laptop to hack the subtitles. appears on the screen, followed by love hearts. Without any change to the synopsis or music a completely different ending unfolds. Bacchus parades through his aria while Ariadne giggles alongside Truffaldin and #stillsinging appears on the subtitles in a gentle mockery of operatic conventions.

Bacchus (Henry Choo)

Under Osborne’s perceptive direction the humour doesn’t cheapen the libretto and is couched sensitively withing the splendour of Strauss’ music. Dragon and his 34 piece orchestra impressively negotiate the sudden mood changes and soloistic writing so that Strauss’ polyphonic wind writing and waves of string sound overlay the entire production with a profound majesty. Particularly impressive is Dragon’s ability to modulate the orchestral support for singers of often quite varied vocal volume.

The singers are uniformly excellent and with such sympathetic directorial and musical support they are able to shine. Fiona Jopson’s lyrico-spinto voice has the emotional richness and power for Strauss’ music while Henry Choo commands the stage as an overbearing and seductive Bacchus. Jenna Robertson sizzles as the flirtatious Zerbinetta with coloratura fireworks compensating for occasional thin tone. Eva-Marie Middleton is a natural drama queen as the Composer, her voice sweet and strong. The clowns (Kristin Bowtell, Simon Wood, Ry Charleson and Charles Bogle) are a lively lot of lads singing in a quaint mix of barber-shop meets opera. Ariadne’s troupe of Nymphs are sung with creamy warmth by Alexandra Bak, Christina The and Belinda Cox, and Michael Heap is an eloquent Music Master.

The Composer (Eva-Marie Middleton)

Ariadne auf Naxos continues 9, 11, 16 September Joy Shepherd Performing Arts Centre, Mosman Park. 13 September Concert Performance Darlington Hall.
Tickets here.
All photos credit Very Serious photography.