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Felicity Kendal’s Drunk Love, Glyndebourne Gets Bombed

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May 23 (Bloomberg) -- Hot on the heels of Glyndebourne’s “Giulio Cesare” at the Metropolitan Opera, the U.K. festival opens with another excellent staging.

The season curtain-raiser is a provocative updating of Richard Strauss’s backstage comedy “Ariadne auf Naxos” directed by Katharina Thoma.

It’s 1940. We’re in an English country house, rather like Glyndebourne itself, in which operas are performed. A young composer learns that his serious new work must be performed simultaneously with a roughhouse burlesque. A flighty and promiscuous Zerbinetta arrives with her vaudeville troupe to do the comic business, and upsets all the singers.

After an extraordinarily bold coup de theatre which it would be unfair to reveal, the great mansion is then transformed, as many mansions really were, into a makeshift wartime hospital.

Lonely Ariadne lies in one of the hospital beds longing for death. Zerbinetta is now part of a travelling military entertainment unit, and she arrives to cheer her up.

Every detail works, and the symbolic battle in the opera between tragedy and comedy is given a chic twist.

The intimate auditorium is perfect for Soile Isokoski’s debut in the demanding role of Ariadne, and she sings it beautifully. What Laura Claycomb lacks in vocal clarity at the top of her range she more than makes up for in stage magnetism as Zerbinetta, and rich-voiced American mezzo Kate Lindsey triumphs as the hot-headed composer.

The one opening-night disappointment was poor tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, who coughed his way through the role of Bacchus and skipped all the high notes. Conductor Vladimir Jurowski compensated with a spit-spot account of the score.

Rating: ****.

‘Relatively Speaking’

There’s another battle between old love and new lovers in a desperately funny production of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1967 farce “Relatively Speaking.”

Lovestruck young Greg (Max Bennett) secretly goes to meet his girlfriend’s parents, played by Felicity Kendal and Jonathan Coy. The only problem is that his girlfriend (Kara Tointon) has lied to him: the male half of the couple is really her lover, not her father.

The implausible dialogue of the initial meeting relies on clunkily ambiguous pronouns to keep the misunderstandings spinning.

Once that’s out of the way, it all speeds along like a comic rollercoaster. Kendal brings terrific warmth to the muddle-headed and tipsy wife, Sheila, and Lindsay Posner’s period-costume production is a delight.

Rating: ****.

Rossini Opera

The same can’t be said of John Fulljames’s messy staging of Rossini’s “La donna del lago” at the Royal Opera.

Although Fulljames uses stylized period costumes for the main plot about a 16th-century Scottish lass who is pursued by three men, he also frames the stage with observers in early 19th-century garb who witness the action.

Distancing devices like this generally give the impression that the director doesn’t trust the material. It’s certainly the case here.

The shame is all the greater because Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez -- the two most exciting Rossini singers of the moment -- are on superb form. They’re matched by a great supporting cast and excellent conducting from Michele Mariotti.

Rating: ***.

“Ariadne auf Naxos” is in repertoire at Glyndebourne. http://www.glyndebourne.com or +44-1273-813813. The production will be screened to more than 100 cinemas on June 4.

“Relatively Speaking” is at Wyndham’s Theatre. http://www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk or +44-844-482-5136

“La donna del lago” is in repertoire at the Royal Opera. http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Excellent
****       Very good
***        Average
**         Mediocre
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Scott Reyburn on the art market, Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater, Jason Harper on cars, Rich Jaroslovsky on tech, Lance Esplund on U.S. art and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.