Ariadne of Naxos

Michael Van Duzer Reviews - Theater

It’s hardly surprising that the Pacific Opera Project (POP) would want to bring their uniquely cheeky perspective to Ariadne auf Naxos. Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s libretto offers a witty and satiric look at the never-ending battle between the ideals of the “pure” artist and the practical reality of putting on a show. And, of course, Richard Strauss’ score lifts the proceedings beyond the petty egos of performers and producers.

The opera’s structure is simplicity itself: a prologue reveals the backstage machinations surrounding the premiere of a new opera; after an intermission, the opera is performed. Stephen Karr’s admirable adaptation uses the conceit that the opera has been commissioned for the 1913 opening of the actual venue in Highland Park in which the audience sits. As the dates for the opera’s premiere and the opening of the Ebell Club are roughly simultaneous, this makes for a comfortable modernization.

The naïve and idealistic Composer (Claire Shackleton) comes backstage to give final notes to her leads, Ariadne (Tracy Cox) and Bacchus (Brendan Sliger). The probably pretentious opus she’s written is a treatment of the mythical Ariadne, after she has been abandoned on the desert island of Naxos by Theseus. The Composer’s music teacher (Ryan Thorn) approaches with some bad news. Apparently the opera is sharing the bill with a lowly vaudeville troupe.  But scarcely has that shock registered before even worse news arrives. Mr. H. H. Meyer (Timothy Campbell) explains that, as the production must end in time for the fireworks display, the opera and the vaudeville act need to be performed simultaneously. Zerbinetta (Sara Duchovnay), the troupe’s leader, is philosophical about the directive, but the Composer is horrified. That is, until Zerbinetta points out the possibility of never hearing her work performed. At that point, like so many before her, she learns the art of compromise. The opera/vaudeville mashup proves to be a delightfully incongruous production.

As usual, Director Josh Shaw has some fresh ideas for the production. Capitalizing on the location and era, he uses hints of old Hollywood, like the intertitles for the opera and the silent comedy antics of Zerbinetta’s boys. (Note the Harold Lloyd glasses on Robert Norman’s Brighella.) He also incorporates period theatrical devices like the olio at the top of the second act in which Campbell and Thorn sing a decidedly non-period appropriate song. As Stephen Karr’s libretto places all but the opera in English, Shaw dispenses with the now ubiquitous supertitles. But his most audacious stroke is to make the composer a woman. Of course, the role is always sung by a woman, but it is written as a “trouser” role (when a female singer plays the part of a young man). The sex change works quite well. Musical Composition remains a primarily male occupation, so the desperation of a female Composer makes more sense than a male might in a time when composers were less dependent on patrons. The change also reveals a normally subliminal Sapphic element in trouser roles. The Composer readily appreciates Zerbinetta’s physical charms and she, in return, presses that advantage when needed.

Like most Strauss operas, Ariadne is really about the ladies, and Karr and Shaw have cast them well. Shackleton is a convincingly passionate Composer who sings with an easy grace that captivates. And her English diction is commendable. Tracy Cox proves a commanding Ariadne, whether bemoaning her lonely fate on the island or spoofing diva conventions. Her powerful soprano incorporates enough steel to fill the hall and enough cream to capture the rapture in Strauss’ score. As usual, Zerbinetta is an audience favorite, and Duchovnay earns their affection. Flirty and fun-loving Duchovany’s Zerbinetta is also the smartest person in every room. Zerbinetta’s extended aria in the second act is one of the most treacherous in the coloratura repertoire. Duchovnay’s silvery tone and dexterity make the vocal fireworks seem easy—trickier than usual as the staging incorporates the three Nymphs and audience volunteers.

Brendan Sliger’s Bacchus is appropriately stentorian. The role’s tessitura is harrowingly cruel, and while Silger didn’t completely conquer its vocal demands, he did better than most of the singers I’ve seen tackle the role in major opera houses. Ryan Thorn’s Music Teacher and Timothy Campbell’s H. H. Meyer (a speaking role) are essentially narrative devices, but they bring some humanity to the characters. Maria Elena Altany, Kelci Hahn, and Sarah Beaty make lovely music as the island Nymphs. The members of Zerbitnetta’s troupe, Nicholas LaGesse, Jon Lee Keenan, Robert Norman, and Keith Colclough do a splendid job of executing their madcap action while not stinting on their musical obligations.

The company’s Music Director, Stephen Karr leads his orchestra in a sensitive reading of the score.

Ebell Club of Highland Park   May 14 – 23, 2015    323 739-6122