Ariadne auf Naxos, Royal Opera House, London
Zerbinetta (Jane Archibald) and Ariadne (Karita Mattila)

No composer was so intent on navel-gazing as Richard Strauss. In his 150th anniversary year we are getting plenty of opportunity to revisit his various autobiographical works and also those – notably Ariadne auf Naxos and Capriccio – in which he asks himself the question: “What is opera?”.

Dating from 2002, Christof Loy’s production still looks handsome, but is muddle-headed about the way it approaches the answer. In particular, the contrasting elements Strauss brings into play – the formal operatic characters are shown as stuffed shirts, the popular entertainers as modern bruisers, including a leather-clad biker and a punk – never look likely to achieve the equilibrium he intended.

This, though, is not a revival about niceties of balance. The stage was dominated throughout by the larger-than-life presence of Karita Mattila, singing the title role for the first time. In the Prologue she does a nice line in over-the-top comedy as the Prima Donna (we love the pink, fluffy slippers) and, as Ariadne, comes across as nothing less than a monstre sacrée of the ancient art-form. It would be nice to hear this classical heroine sung in a comparably classical style, but Mattila is not about that. She throws herself uninhibitedly into the role, pumping out volume, intensity, high-romantic fervour – not elegant at all, but Mattila has star quality (and voice) to spare.

It makes for an uneven contest. As Zerbinetta, Jane Archibald gives a nicely detailed portrayal, neatly sung and whimsical, which might shine elsewhere when the competition is on a smaller scale. Thomas Allen’s experienced Music Master made the biggest impression in the Prologue. Ruxandra Donose’s Composer was lost under the welter of sound coming from the small orchestra in the pit. The three nymphs – Sofia Fomina, Karen Cargill and Kiandra Howarth – are excellent and the commedia dell’arte troupe, led by Markus Werba’s Harlequin, go through their routines with some energy.

All pale, though, as the performance approaches the closing half hour, when Mattila and conductor Antonio Pappano really let themselves go. The final duet, with Roberto Saccà’s game Bacchus doing his best to keep up, sets the pulse racing through to a climax of heated Wagnerian splendour – unadulterated, red-blooded passion, but perhaps after all that is what opera is about?

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