Ariadne ducks the bombs at the Glyndebourne festival

This year's Glyndebourne opener Ariadne auf Naxos is getting a radical relocation, to a Blitz-time hospital. Director Katharina Thoma tells Tom Service how she drew on the history of the Sussex mansion

Richard Strauss's gorgeously beguiling Ariadne auf Naxos is usually presented as a piece of genteel aristocratic entertainment. Its first half is a comedy of upper-class manners, in which "the richest man in Vienna" commissions some operatic works for a little after-dinner amusement; and the second gives him what he ordered, via a sumptuous vision of the lovelorn Ariadne on her lonesome island.

This opera within an opera, which makes the very theatre you're sitting in part of the drama, is not a piece in which you'd expect to find raw emotions or social commentary. Or, for that matter, bombs raining down on the set. But director Katharina Thoma's production, the opening attraction of this year's Glyndebourne festival, has all that and more. Her vision is an attempt to get to the big truths at the heart of Strauss's dazzling drama. This young German director, whose thought-provoking and vigorously musical productions of everything from Samuel Barber to Puccini have marked her out as one of her generation's most exciting talents, isn't just making her UK debut. This is also the first time she's tackled any of Strauss's operas.

The first half of Thoma's Ariadne is set unambiguously in an English country house in the 1940s, a place that bears a non-coincidental resemblance to Glyndebourne – which began life, after all, as a rich man's dream of operatic entertainment at his country pile. The cast, singing and speaking in the original German, hang up union flags and bunting, generating an atmosphere of country-house bonhomie.

But in the second half, Ariadne sure isn't on Naxos, or even a panto-style desert island in the middle of an aristo's drawing room. Instead, she's a patient in a second world war hospital, and Bacchus, her heroic saviour, is a Spitfire pilot. The reason is simple: Glyndebourne's own wartime history. "I was inspired by the way the house changed its function during the second world war," says Thoma. "It became a home for evacuated children. There are photos from that time of all the children's beds stuffed into the drawing room. That's what our set looks like."

Thoma consistently finds a deeper side to the airy confection of this 1916 drama, an approach much aided by this wartime setting. The character of Zerbinetta, part of a troupe of comedians, is conventionally played as a coquettish young woman, whose aria in the second half is an embodiment of the pleasures of sensuality and excess. But Thoma hears that showstopping number differently. "It's really a bit insane," she says. "It's superficially bright and easy, but actually all that coloratura expresses a deep longing. She is at least as heartbroken as Ariadne – it's just that she reacts in a different way. She is not well, not at all. She is obsessed by sex, by men. And during the war, when men and women came together and made love, it all happened very quickly, because they did not know if they would be alive tomorrow. It was a very explosive time – they were dancing on a volcano."

Thoma also takes the Composer through into the second half's opera as well, too. That's unusual: he only sings in the Prologue, and then almost always gets the operatic equivalent of an early bath. But his emotional journey through the entire work is one of the most important dimensions in Thoma's production. He appears at the start of the second half in the hospital with his score above his head, having cowered under falling bombs at the end of the Prologue. By the end, he has clearly changed. "We see him closing his book," says Thoma, "taking his suitcase, and going into a future where he will be able to create work of a very intense emotional nature due to this experience."

Thoma sees a connection between Strauss and the Composer. Does she think Strauss made that same journey from idealised love and rarefied thinking about art and music to a grounding in the real world? "Not really. For him, it was very difficult to accept reality and to let go of being an artist, to understand there are other things going on in the world – whether during the first world war, when he was revising Ariadne, or during the second. The bombing and destruction of the Munich opera house was more of a loss to him than the millions of dead."

While Strauss may have had a slightly tenuous grip on reality, Thoma makes his Ariadne auf Naxos a confrontation with it. But that's not to say she doubts his sincerity. "His emotions must have been true," she says. "Otherwise he couldn"t have written this astonishing music. I believe every single note."

• Ariadne auf Naxos opens the Glyndebourne festival, Lewes, on Saturday. The production will be streamed live on the Guardian website on 4 June (

See also

* Thomas Allen on his role as the Music Master
* Kate Lindsey on her role as the Composer


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Glyndebourne 2013: Ariadne auf Naxos trailer - video

Glyndebourne's new production of Strauss's opera will be streamed live from the festival on 4 June at 7pm. Join us here then #ariadne

24, May, 2013 @8:02 AM

Article image
The Cunning Little Vixen brings animal magic to Glyndebourne

With its cast of bloodthirsty foxes, lazy hens and mischievous frogs, Janácek's opera is joy – and a powerful reminder of the force of nature

Tom Service

17, May, 2012 @7:00 PM

Article image
Glyndebourne and Figaro: a perfect match

George Christie grew up at Glyndebourne and his mother was the festival's first Susanna. He looks forward to a new production of Mozart's great comic opera

George Christie

22, Jun, 2012 @9:55 PM

Article image
Glyndebourne and the Guardian team up for 2013 opera season

Ariadne auf Naxos conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, Donizetti's Don Pasquale and Rameau's Hippolyte will feature in the festival's summer season – all filmed and streamed live on the Guardian's website

Imogen Tilden

04, Oct, 2012 @1:04 PM

Article image
Danielle de Niese: 'I'm ripe and ready for Donizetti now'

Danielle de Niese dreamed of becoming an opera singer from early childhood. Now, as she stars in another lead role at Glyndebourne, she reveals how she became one of the world's most sought-after sopranos

Stuart Jeffries

01, Aug, 2013 @4:20 PM

Article image
Ariadne auf Naxos podcast

Glyndebourne's new production of Ariadne auf Naxos will be streamed live from the festival on 4 June at 7pm (BST). In the podcast Peggy Reynolds introduces Strauss's opera that is 'pure delight'


13, May, 2013 @12:55 PM

Article image
Guardian to broadcast six operas from Glyndebourne this summer

Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro and Ravel double bill among works to be streamed live from Sussex festival after successful trial

Alex Needham

23, Mar, 2012 @5:18 PM

Article image
Glyndebourne: Falstaff podcast – audio

Richard Jones's production of Falstaff was new to Glyndebourne in 2009 and recorded live at the festival that same year. In this podcast, Peggy Reynolds introduces Verdi's glorious opera

16, May, 2013 @12:10 PM

Article image
Glyndebourne 2013: Ariadne auf Naxos - in pictures

Images from Glyndebourne's new production of Strauss's comic opera that will be live-streamed here on 4 June from 7pm.

Tristram Kenton

27, May, 2013 @1:29 PM

Article image
Glyndebourne 2013: Don Pasquale - trailer

Donizetti's comedy - with a sparkling cast that includes the 'sparky and watchable' Danielle de Niese - will be streamed live from Glyndebourne on Tuesday 6 August from 7.15pm (BST).

31, Jul, 2013 @12:52 PM