May 8th 2015

Humor and seriousness collide in Seattle Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos”

by James Bash

 

James Bash writes articles fora variety of publications, including magazines such as Opera America, OpenSpaces, Opera, MUSO, International Arts Manager, American Record Guide, Symphony, Opera Canada, and PSU Magazine. The newspapers include Crosscut, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Oregonian, The Columbian, The Portland Tribune, The Register-Guard, and Willamette Week. James has also written a number of articles for the Oregon Arts Commission and contributed articles to the 2nd edition of the Grove Dictionary of American Music. James was a fellow to the 2008 NEA Journalism Institute for Classical Music and Opera. He is a member of the Music Critics Association of North America (mcana.org) and lives in Portland.

One can easily imagine an opulent home of a Seattle billionaire like Bill Gates or Paul Allen as a setting for Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” So after the curtain went up for Seattle Opera’s opening night (May 2) at McCaw Hall, the contemporary setting, created by Robert Dahlstrom, aptly hearkened back to the palace of the wealthiest man in Vienna, for which Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal envisaged the original production. Perhaps the opera’s mashup of low brow comedy with high “serious” art does apply to today’s elite class as much as it did in Strauss’s time. According to the gist of the opera’s storyline, rich folks will always be willing to condense and hurry up anything in order to make a big impression.

Srauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” is an oddball opera. As stated above, it takes place in the home of a very wealthy man. He has so much money, that he can invite two ensembles to perform at the theater which is located in his home. One ensemble consists of comedians who do slapstick routines. The other ensemble consists of a group of opera singers who intend to perform the Greek legend of Ariadne on the island of Naxos where Ariadne has been stranded by her lover and, consequently awaits death. A crisis occurs when the head butler tells the young composer (sung by a mezzo) that his piece must be performed at the same time that the comedians are on stage because the rich fellow (who is paying for everything) doesn’t want his guests to miss the fireworks show.

Kate Lindsey [in the picture] conveyed the impetuous nature of The Composer with verve. Lindsey was especially effective in situations where The Composer was losing his composure in the face of impossible demands. Sarah Coburn dazzled the audience with her bright and lithe soprano in the role of Zerbinetta, the song-and-dance attraction of the comedian troupe. Colburn’s high-wire delivery while perched on top of a piano was a highlight of the evening.

As The Music Teacher, Patrick Carfizzi was a brilliant bundle of nerves as he tried to reassure The Composer that all would be right, even though he could see that everything was going to be wrong. Christiane Libor’s Ariadne resolutely maintained a stoic presence in spite of the comic antics of Zerbinetta and her colleagues. The duet between Libor and Issachah Savage (Bacchus) soared heavenward with an appealing urgency.

Amanda Opuszynski (Nyiad), Maya Lahyni (Dryad), and Andrea Carroll (Echo) sang ardently as the Ariadne’s attendants. Andrew Garland (Harlekin), Joshua Kohl (Brighella), and Carfizzi (Truffaldino) provided colorful commentary and agile humor as members of the comic ensemble. Georg Martin Bode, in the speaking role of The Butler, added just the right amount of gravity to counteract the silliness of the plot.

During the overture, it seemed odd that conductor Lawrence Renes applied an arsenal of dramatic gestures, but the orchestra responded with little emotion. After a while, the orchestra began to rev it up when Zerbinetta went into high gear. During the long duet between Ariadne and Bacchus, the 37-member contingent moved into full throttle mode and drove the music homeward, creating the grandness of a much larger ensemble.

The duet was glorious, but neither Libor nor Savage moved downstage, upstage, or across the stage. Consequently the overall effect of the duet was very static. I wish that director Chris Alexander could have had gotten them to move about. The stationary quality weighed down their performances. Fortunately, the fireworks that erupted on the screen in the back created a sense of relief. Ah!

One nice touch of “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which was a revival of Seattle Opera’s 2004 production, occurred when Colburn as the flirty Zerbinetta sashayed into the crowd of on-stage theater-goers (friends of the wealthy host) and lingered for a moment by Speight Jenkins. That prompted a brief round of applause from the audience – in appreciation of the former General Director’s outstanding tenure at Seattle Opera.

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