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Ariadne Marooned at Wolf Trap

(L to R) Anne-Carolyn Bird (Naiad), Marjorie Owens (Ariadne), Leena Chopra (Echo), and Jamie Van Eyck (Dryad) in Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo by Kim Pensinger Witman)
(L to R) Anne-Carolyn Bird (Naiad), Marjorie Owens (Ariadne), Leena Chopra (Echo), and Jamie Van Eyck (Dryad) in Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo by Kim Pensinger Witman)
After taking summer opera lovers to the island of Alcina last month, Wolf Trap Opera Company went to another island, in the Aegean Sea, where Ariadne found herself abandoned by Theseus. Well, sort of. To cap off a season in which the company has done everything just about as well as it could -- choice of operas, casting, staging, execution -- Wolf Trap turned to Richard Strauss's postmodern opera about an opera that has gone terribly, terribly wrong. Ariadne auf Naxos is the strangest work of the Strauss-von Hoffmannsthal partnership, conceived as an occasional work (part of an adaptation of Molière's Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme) and then revised to stand on its own. Some are not convinced of its merits, but it does struggle with the major question facing 20th-century music -- is pleasing the audience more important than staying true to your compositional vision?

Strauss turned his biting wit on himself, helping his librettist make a caricature out of the character of Der Komponist, the composer who is trying to complete an opera commission for a wealthy's patron's private entertainment. The two stars of the opera, a soprano and a tenor, compete in vanity for the composer's attention. The noble patron, more capricious than any singer, now wants the opera to be combined with the antics of a troupe of comic players, led by the flirty actress Zerbinetta. The staging by Thaddeus Strassberger exaggerated rather than merely set the differences between popular and serious, increasing the membership of Zerbinetta's band with the singers who appear in the second act as Najade, Dryade, and Echo (which included rehearsing a striptease number). Numerous gags, especially involving toilet paper and the Tenor in the bathroom, were interpolated, halting the action completely more than once.

Other Reviews:

Robert Battey, High Notes Abound in 'Ariadne' (Washington Post, August 18)

T. L. Ponick, 'Ariadne' a joyful jumble (Washington Times, August 18)

Tim Smith, Strauss' comedic 'Ariadne' a delight (Baltimore Sun, August 19)
Playing to the burlesque in the story is fine, but to do so without the proper balance of respect for the serious side of Strauss's score misses the point. For all of the joking at his own expense, Strauss gives the most sublime music to Der Komponist in the first act and to Ariadne in the second. A director who distracts from it with stage business not even in the libretto should have his head examined. The lesson learned is not only that the composer sees his own high seriousness mocked but that levity and coquettishness may not be enough to sustain Zerbinetta. There was too much of the former in this production and not enough of the latter. In spite of that weakness, the sets designed by Erhard Rom were evocative, if slightly cramped, showing a dingy backstage area (becoming the stage space in the second act), as well as two adjoining dressing rooms.

Fortunately, the music and the generally fine singing made the point much more clearly than the staging missed it. Standing out from the crowd were the composer of Elizabeth DeShong, who showed that her Strauss was formidable, if perhaps not yet the equal of her Handelian exploits in Alcina. The notes and the power were all there, but a metallic shallowness crept in occasionally, especially at the beginning. As the voice grows and matures, it will likely blossom into a lustrous Komponist. We were deprived of really hearing Marjorie Owens in Un Giorno di Regno, when she was indisposed, but as the Soprano and Ariadne, she soared from sonorous depths to a searing top, a large, potent, Straussian voice.

Diego Torre (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo by Carol Pratt)
Diego Torre (Bacchus) in Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo by Carol Pratt)
Married to a soprano, Strauss preferred female voices, setting many of his most beloved ensembles for all (or mostly) treble voices. He seems particularly to have hated tenors, casting them either in ridiculous character roles or making heroic vocal demands that are too daunting for almost all potential singers. Tenor Diego Torre has not made that much of an impression in the season up to this point, but it was clear that he was brought to Wolf Trap for this opera. As the Tenor and Bacchus, Torre sang with clarion fierceness, with the sort of dramatic weight that could make for great Strauss and Wagner eventually. The downside of opera's current obsession with youth and beauty is that sometimes less satisfying voices are heard instead of the strongest ones. One point that the Wolf Trap company has made with this season is that sometimes excellent voices balance out favorably against plus-sized casting.

Leena Chopra (Echo, supposedly) in Jerry Springer: The Opera Ariadne auf Naxos, Wolf Trap Opera, 2008 (photo by Kim Pensinger Witman)
The least convincing of the lead roles was Erin Morley's Zerbinetta, which had sparkle, flightiness, and sexy allure but lacked some power to carry against the orchestra at times. The trio of Najade, Dryade, and Echo was centered on the tannic weight of Jamie Van Eyck, with flavors of golden honey (Anne-Carolyn Bird) and airy fizz (Leena Chopra) to color their mellifluous trio ("Töne, töne, süsse Stimme"). All three were cast with physical considerations in mind, as the aforementioned strip number required them to wear (or not to wear) very revealing costumes. It made a hash of the libretto, but no one is likely to mind Leena Chopra's slutty Valkyrie too much at all. Other performances are noteworthy mostly for how far over the top the director pushed them: Rodell Rosel's flaming Tanzmeister, the Lakai of Thomas Florio as black-clad techie, and the ridiculous Harlekin of Joshua Jeremiah.

Conductor Timothy Long kept his pick-up band, spread out from the pit to the left side of the house (where else to put those two harps?), together for the most part. The wind and brass playing was generally excellent, although the strings, in fairly small numbers, could have sounded more unified in tone quality and intonation. The costumes (designed by Mattie Ullrich) helped reinforce the director's vision of the opera's conclusion, misguided but with potential, in which Ariadne, the opera within the opera, ends and we see the stars taking their bows. The illusion is stripped away as the players appear in the "wings" out of costume, and Zerbinetta and the Composer meet in her dressing room. Lights out.

Only one more performance of Ariadne auf Naxos remains, on Tuesday night (August 19, 8 pm). The whole run reportedly sold out some time ago, so you will have to be inventive to find a ticket at this point.

1 comment:

Mark Barry said...

I would go just to see Leena!