ARIADNE Auf Naxos followed Der Rosenkavalier, the most famous opera by Richard Strauss and his librettist, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The differences in instrumentation could hardly be wider: Instead of the luxuriant Rosenkavalier orchestra of 114 instruments, Ariadne is scored for an unusual combination of just forty: a small string section, two harps and double woodwind; reduced brass comprising two horns, trumpet and bass trombone; timpani, four percussionists, piano, celeste and harmonium. Opera North principal guest conductor Antony Hermus coaxes a beguiling richness of sonorities from his players. The sound is not so much orchestral, more like big chamber music. This sonic canvas is in perfect harmony with the opera’s fascinating blend of hectic backstage comedy and classical mythology.

The Ariadne myth tells how Theseus, Prince of Athens, killed the Minotaur in Crete and then sailed to the island of Naxos with Princess Ariadne as his bride. Theseus then abandons Ariadne and secretly returns to Athens. The Princess resigns herself to death - until the arrival of the young god Bacchus. The pair fall in love.

Production director Rodula Gaitanou’s relocation to the creative buzz of a Fellini film studio in 1950s Rome is a masterstroke. Gaitanou, choreographer Victoria Newlyn and Opera North’s consummate ensemble cast wonderfully project the hectic conversational style of the Prologue in a mix of English, German and Italian. Richard Strauss himself might well have been delighted with the casting of the sumptuous-toned Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne and American heldentenor Ric Furman as Bacchus. Their concluding duet is of sublime splendour.

Strauss is known to have been disappointed by the “terrible tenors” available for the premiere. Hence his assignment of the role of the Composer to a mezzo soprano. The Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp makes the most of this powerful trouser-role and sings with ravishing tone. Jennifer France sings and dances delightfully as Zerbinetta, leader of the Commedia Dell’arte troupe. Her stratospheric aria with a climactic top F, two octaves above middle C, stops the show.

The entire production is a resounding triumph. Ariadne Auf Naxos had not been staged in Leeds since a Sadlers Wells touring production back in 1969. Continues in repertoire at Leeds Grand on Fri 24th Feb and Wed 1st March before touring.