Arts & Events

New: Festival Opera Does Strauss’s ARIADNE AUF NAXOS

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday July 13, 2015 - 06:11:00 PM

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is about as weird as opera gets; and opera can get pretty weird. In its original incarnation, this was a one act opera designed to follow a condensed version of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (translated into German by Hugo von Hofmannstahl), for which Strauss provided incidental music. This version was given in Stuttgart in 1912, and again in Berlin in 1913. It pleased no one. Subsequently, Strauss and von Hofmannstahl dropped the Molière play and wrote a lengthy Prologue to be performed before the one act opera. This new version successfully premiered in Vienna in 1916. 

Although I’ve seen Ariadne auf Naxos four times now, this Festival Opera production, directed and conducted by Michael Morgan, is without doubt the weirdest of all stagings I’ve yet encountered. For some unknown reason, Morgan decided to do the Prologue in English, highly colloquial English at that, complete with references to Broadway musicals, trial runs on the Jersey Shore, and other topical references. The plot of the Prologue is a behind-the-scenes look at preparations for a performance commissioned by a wealthy patron, who has engaged both a commedia dell’arte troupe and an opera company. The composer, usually performed as a trousers role by a mezzo-soprano, was here a female composer, who is devastated to learn that her contribution to serious art is to share the bill with lowly vaudeville comedians. She becomes even more chagrined when told by the Major domo that the two works will be performed simultaneously.  

Most of the Prologue is taken up by the strident complaints of the composer, often in dialogue with the music-master. As the female composer, mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin sang powerfully, although crossing the border occasionally into shrieking. In the past, I have heard two magnificent mezzos sing this role – Tatiana Troyanos in 1979 and Maria Ewing in 1984, both heard at the Met in New York. Although Catherine Martin made a valiant effort and sang beautifully her paean to music as a sacred art, on the whole it just didn’t work, especially because Michael Morgan made her sing this role in English. What might have sounded avant garde in Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s libretto in German in 1916 simply sounded trashy and strident in English in 2015. The entire Prologue was disorienting in the extreme in this production; and that’s saying quite a bit, for it’s disorienting in the original German as well, though to a lesser extent. 

Although the role of the composer dominates the Prologue, much of the composer’s interaction is with the music master, sung here by bass-baritone Kirk Eichelberger, who sang robustly with clear diction. There are also brief contrib-utions from the soprano who will sing Ariadne in the opera proper, as well as from the young soprano Zerbinetta from the commedia dell’arte troupe, who will also make an important contribution to the opera itself. In the Prologue, however, these latter are mere token appearances; and we don’t get a chance to hear these singers let loose.  

After intermission, everything changes. Now the Festival Opera production switches to the original German. Now Richard Strauss lets loose his formidable genius for melody as sung by the soprano voice. As Ariadne, Othalie Graham unleashed a long, dramatic aria of considerable beauty and pathos. She sang of her young love for Theseus, and of his sudden, totally unexpected, desertion of her on the island of Naxos. She was devastated and now longs only for death. She awaits Hermes in his avatar as Hermes Theopompus who leads the dead into the under-world of Hades where all is oblivion. Three nymphs sang of her plight. Soprano Sara Duchovnay was a vibrant Naiad; mezzo-soprano Betany Coffland was a fine Dryad, and soprano Molly Wilson was an effective Echo. Strauss wrote some lovely melodies for these three nymphs.  

Most spectacular of all, however, was the intervention of Zerbinetta, the soprano from the commedia dell’arte troupe. As sung by Shawnette Sulker, Zerbinetta was an absolute dynamo! When Shawnette Sulker launched into her long and difficult coloratura aria in an attempt to win Ariadne back to embracing life and the possibility of future loves, Zerbinetta had the Walnut Creek audience eating out of her hands. Zerbinetta sang of her own many love affairs, and made the point that each new lover appears to her as a god. A voice that heretofore in this opera had not been given much to sing, was suddenly unleashed in the most dramatic and endear-ing fashion. Vocally and dramatically, Shawnette Sulker was a real show-stopper. This was without a doubt the finest Zerbinetta I’ve ever heard. 

Of course, given this opera’s plot, which swings back and forth from serious art to clownish entertainment, and back again, there had to be interludes of comic and boorish behavior, which were supplied here by a vaudeville foursome of male singers. Baritone Daniel Cilli was a dynamic Harlequin; tenor Michel Desnoyers was a funny Brighella; tenor José Hernández was a comical Scaramuccio; and baritone Roberto Perlas Gomez was a hilarious Truffaldino. Together, they hammed up their quartets in over-the-top Broadway-style routines of singing and dancing.  

At last the nymphs announce the approach of a ship. The voice of Bacchus is heard in the distance. Sung offstage by tenor Robert Breault, Bacchus exults in having escaped the clutches of the enchantress Circe, who sought to detain him on her island. When Bacchus appears onstage, Ariadne at first mistakes him for Theseus come back to her. Then she sees her error. But she now thinks he is Hermes come to escort her to Hades. Ariadne sings of welcoming death. Bacchus, struck by her beauty, urges her to welcome life and love. The role of Bacchus is written for a Wagnerian heldentenor, and Robert Breault filled the bill magnificently, singing with great power and intensity. He reminded me vocally, if not in stature, of a young James King, whom I heard sing this role in Munich in 1969. Othalie Graham’s Ariadne blossomed forth in response to the wooing of Bacchus; and the two lovers each declared themselves utterly transformed by the power of love – an ending seconded by Zerbinetta who gets the opera’s last word. 

If Michael Morgan had not made a strident mash-up of the Prologue by having it sung in colloquial American English, his excellent conducting would have made this Ariadne auf Naxos altogether successful. As it stood, however, it was sorely divided into a highly disorienting, often downright jarring Prologue followed by a beautifully sung one act opera containing some of Richard Strauss’s finest music. A totally weird production.