Saturday, June 25, 2016

Review: The problems of "Ariadne on Naxos" were solved elegantly at Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Act I
Photo: Ken Howard
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I usually make it a practice to attend the opening nights of Opera Theatre's summer season, but travel plans this year obliged me to push all but La Bohème off to the final week of performances. That meant that I didn't get to see their admirable production of Richard Strauss's seriocomic Ariadne on Naxos until its closing night.

Better late than never, right?

It was, in any case, a pretty splendid presentation of an opera that is, by any standard, a kind of odd duck. Strauss and his librettist (and frequent collaborator) Hugo von Hofmannsthal originally intended it as a one-act postlude for a production of Moliere's comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in 1912. The difficulty and expense of mounting a play and an opera on the same bill eventually forced them to produce a rewrite that allowed the opera to stand on its own. It was first performed in 1916 and has been in circulation ever since.

So Young Park and the clowns
Photo: Ken Howard
The comic Prologue sets up the situation: the “richest man in Vienna” has engaged both a production of the tragic opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a commedia dell'arte troupe as after-dinner entertainment for his guests. To save time, he decrees that both shows must take place simultaneously. The performers can work out the details. The resulting conflicts between the opera company's Composer, Music Master, Prima Donna, and Tenor on one side and Zerbinetta and her group of buffoons on the other generate plenty of laughs, most of them at the expense of the self-important composer and his egotistical leading lady.

After intermission, we see the hybrid opera within an opera set up in the Prologue. Abandoned on Naxos, Ariadne (with the help of three nymphs) yearns for death, but her lamentations are repeatedly interrupted by Zerbinetta and company, who are determined to cheer her up. Drama eventually wins out, however, when Bacchus arrives, declares his love, and joins Ariadne in a long, rapturous love duet.

AJ Glueckert and Marjorie Owens in Act II
Photo: Ken Howard
The second act "opera within an opera" presents real problems, not the least of which is getting the audience to take Ariadne and Bacchus seriously after Strauss and Hofmannsthal have so effectively lampooned the pretensions of operatic tragedy in the first act. But OTSL had a couple of excellent performers in tenor AJ Glueckert and soprano Marjorie Owens, both making very strong impressions in their local debuts. Ms. Owens was particularly affecting as the bereft Ariadne, backed up by the glorious voices of the three nymphs (Elizabeth Sutphen, Stephanie Sanchez, and Liv Redpath) constantly striking graceful "Grecian urn" poses.

Perhaps the most striking performance of the evening, though, came from former Gerdine Young Artist So Young Park in the important and difficult role of Zerbinetta. Strauss wrote an almost absurdly long and florid coloratura aria ("Großmächtige Prinzessin" or "High and mighty princess") for her in the second act that calls on all the technique and flexibility a coloratura can summon up. It's a tribute to Ms. Park's abilities that she not only handled it with ease, but made it entertaining as well.

So Young Park and Cecelia Hall
Mezzo Cecelia Hall was comically intense in the "pants" role of the Composer and OTSL veteran Matthew DiBattista was hilariously nimble as the Dancing Master. John Brancy's solid baritone enhanced his very funny performance as the principal clown, Harlequin. Accompanying him as Zerbinetta's other three jokers were bass-baritone (and nimble dancer) Erik van Heyningen, tenor Benjamin Lee, and tenor Miles Mykkanen. Veteran St. Louis actor Ken Page was the epitome of self-important pomposity in the non-singing role of the Major Domo.

Director/Choreographer Seán Curran's staging felt a bit gimmicky at times, but generally worked quite well. And the comic dance moves he provided for Zerbinetta's crew could not have been better. Rory Macdonald conducted members of the St. Louis Symphony in a wonderfully full-blooded reading of Strauss's score.

As this is being written, Opera Theatre's 2016 season is winding down, concluding with Verdi's Macbeth tomorrow (June 26) at 7. It has been a very strong season and I'm glad I finally got to see all of it, even if I did so just under the wire.

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