A clever parable about self-indulgent creative types

Elizabeth Llewellyn as the titular character in Ariadne auf Naxos - Richard H Smith
Elizabeth Llewellyn as the titular character in Ariadne auf Naxos - Richard H Smith

What’s a Fellini film-studio doing in a Richard Strauss opera? Since Strauss’s self-absorbed opera Ariadne auf Naxos, about the writing of an opera, went through many different incarnations with his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, I suppose it’s fair game for a director to turn it into a parable about self-indulgent film-making. Rodula Gaitanou’s ingenious staging for Opera North, first seen in Gothenburg, makes the most of the 1916 version, which places a first act about the chaotic creation of the opera as a prologue to the opera itself.

In the original scenario, the opera is commissioned by the richest man in Vienna, who, having wanted a serious mythological opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, then wants to add a comic piece – and finally decides that the two must be performed at the same time. Cue hair-tearing despair by the Composer (Hanna Hipp) and a resulting opera that’s compromised by the insertion of a commedia dell’arte troupe (here a delightful straight steal from Fellini’s film 81⁄2). The music is full of allusions to the history of opera, both comic and serious.

George Souglides’s designs, translating the set into a studio, work nicely in the bustle of Strauss’s prologue in a mash-up of different languages, where egos clash with the arrival of the grand Prima Donna (Elizabeth Llewellyn, dog in tow) and the effervescent Zerbinetta (Jennifer France). The commissioner’s wishes are relayed by the Major-domo John Savournin, the one person on stage whose impeccable diction does not need the loudspeaker he is offered. Dean Robinson’s Music Master and Daniel Norman’s Dancing Master intervene fruitlessly, while the Composer’s anxiety overflows into Lipp’s ardent lines, powerfully delivered if a little tense at the top of the range.

As the company tries to perform the opera/film after the interval (now all in German), the weaknesses rather show up the fault-lines in Hofmannsthal’s original libretto: the Composer, now sidelined, can only gesture fruitlessly from the camera positions; the burgeoning love of Ariadne (Llewellyn again) and Bacchus (Ric Furman, a worthy last-minute replacement) is almost over before it starts. The big attraction here is a pair of over-the-top vocal set-pieces: the first for Ariadne, deeply serious and gloriously sustained by Llewellyn, which is then rather upstaged by Zerbinetta’s stratospheric rant, here faultlessly delivered by France.

The three hyperactive Valkyrie-like nymphs (Daisy Brown, Laura Kelly-McInroy and Amy Preston) are quite trying with their constant fluttering, and the commedia dell’arte quartet outstay their welcome with one episode too many. We may doubt the coming-together, too, of the Composer and Zerbinetta; but the film-set wrap in the final bars is very nicely done. And while the orchestra took a while to settle down on this first night, Antony Hermus conducts this tricky, allusive score with vim.

In Leeds until March 1, then touring until March 24. Tickets: operanorth.co.uk