Fort Worth Opera
Conductor – Joe Illick
Director – David Gately
Scenic Designer – Robin Vest
Makeup and Wig Designer – Steven Bryant
Lighting Designer – Chad R. Jung
Costume Designer – Susan Memmott Alfred
Stage Manager – Joe Gladstone
Assistant Director – Michael Yeshion
Repetiteur – Emily Jarrell Urbanek
English Supertitle Cueing – Stuart Tarbuck
Major Domo – William V. Madison
Music Teacher – Stephen Lusmann
Composer – Cecelia Hall
Bacchus – Corey Bix
Officer – David Miller
Dancing Master – Ian McEuen
Wigmaker – Aaron Sorensen
Lackey – Michael Adams
Zerbinetta – Audrey Luna
Primadonna/Ariadne – Marjorie Owens
Harlekin – Steven Eddy
Scaramuccio –Zac Engle
Truffaldin –Anthony Reed
Brighella – Michael Porter
Najade – Jeni Houser
Dryade – Amanda Robie
Echo – Corrie Donovan
Photo courtesy: Ron T. Ennis
Reviewed Performance 5/3/2013
Reviewed by Laurie Lynn Lindemeier, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Think of a manicured, picturesque British garden such as Stourhead slapped up next to a field of Texas wildflowers and you have a sense of what the German composer Richard Strauss created in his outrageous but dazzling opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The late Romantic composer took a couple of stabs at the work with his friend, poet and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Their rarely performed 1912 version lasted six hours. Their 1916 revision is the one most often performed worldwide and, thankfully, the one Fort Worth Opera presented last Saturday evening at Bass Performance Hall. It certainly was a beautiful flower in the bouquet of the opera festival which began April 28th. I commend the company for presenting an interesting spray of operas this year, ranging from the potent POW story Glory Denied to the beloved Puccini standard La Bohème. Ariadne auf Naxos closes the festival with a final performance on May 12th.
Richard Strauss called his opera a “bizarre mixture of the heroic with the buffo elements.” FWO’s two and a half hour production certainly is in keeping with that sentiment.
The two acts of the play within a play are termed “the prologue” and “the opera.” The first act takes place in the home of a wealthy eighteenth-century Viennese patron who demands that the serious opera he commissioned be sliced and diced into the trite comedic play in order to finish in time for the 9:00 fireworks. Naturally, the composer and performers of the opera seria are in a tizzy over this abomination, yet their paychecks depend on it so they make do. The comedy troupe could care less about the change and more or less say, what’s the big deal?
And so the twofer begins. In Act Two, the classical story of the lovesick Princess Ariadne who was dumped by Theseus on the barren island of Naxos is juxtaposed with the summer-salting/stilt-walking antics of the commedia dell’arte troupe led by the coquettish Zerbinetta. She and her gang of guys are decked out in red, black and white like characters on playing cards. They shuffle in the background and flippantly trump Ariadne’s limelight as she emerges from her cave whining and pining. The three nymphs and Zerbinetta’s colleagues try to cheer her up. Eventually the god Bacchus coasts in on a ship with a humungous bright sail and takes his newfound love Ariadne off to the heavens with him. Zerbinetta makes the final play with her evocative statement, “When a new god comes along, we are captive and dumb.”
The overture boisterously begins the performance, led by conductor Joe Illick who brought out the brilliance of Strauss’ dancing strings and varied textures, including lovely flute, clarinet and oboe solos. Illick did a fine job handling the overture. In the opera that follows, there were brief moments when the full orchestra drowned out the singers. In general, the radiance of Strauss’ musical genius shone through with Illick’s leadership.
The scenery, originally designed for the Utah Opera, was stunning. In the first act the stark white Viennese mansion interior, combined with the black and white costumes, gave the effect of a black and white movie. Scenic Designer Robin Vest, in her debut season with FWO, did a fine job.
The demands for two completely different types of costumes were met by designer Susan Memmott Allred who dressed the mythic Cretan characters and bawdy comedians equally well.
The first act’s smooth white mansion walls contrasted nicely with second act’s rusty brown rocks in multiple lumpy layers depicting the desert island of Naxos. The box seats of the white set are retained in the second act and blend in nicely with the Bass Hall’s box seats. Posh seat holders in elaborate powdered wigs and swishing black lace fans observe the opera from those seats and strengthen the “opera within an opera” effect. Near the end of the second act, Bacchus’ ship ambles in from the right for the “serious” grand entrance of the young god of wine. A “Here comes the god” effect resulted.
Chad Jung handled the lighting of these two sets magnificently, showing off the contrasting textures and colors. Steven Bryant’s makeup and wig designs highlighted the opera seria and comique styles beautifully with white faces and curly wigs alongside the flowing locks and braids of the classic characters.
The staging by Director David Gately was effective. The static nature of the opera should be contributed more to Strauss than the current production. This is perhaps why it is not Strauss’ most performed work, running a third to his more successful Salome and Der Rosenkavalier. Gately often placed the nymphs in triangular format around the princess which dramatized the stereotypical placement of supporting characters around a diva. This brought out Strauss’ whole point, to make fun of serious opera elements. Gately stuck the echo nymph up in the rocks repeatedly. Ariadne was posted in the bull’s eye of the stage and rarely moved during her sad centerpiece aria. And the audience, well…they didn’t seem to mind hearing Ariadne’s gorgeous voice in a recital-type presentation.
Marjorie Owens, the 2004 winner of the Fort Worth’s McCammon Voice Competition, returns to the Fort Worth stage and sang a strong Ariadne with luscious low notes and equally fine high notes. Her beguiling dramatic mezzo suited the moaning of Ariadne’s faithful-unto-death aria “Ein Schönes war” (“There was once a beautiful thing”) and her death wish in “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a land”). Yet, Owens also popped out of character long enough to show disgust when interrupted by the comedians.
One of those comedians, the Harlekin, sung with a strong baritone by Steven Eddy, a FWO studio artist, occasionally stole the show with his jester like prancing about and over-the-top shenanigans. Other notable studio artists were mezzo Amanda Robie as Dryade and soprano Corrie Donovan as Echo. Their nymph trio with Najade, sung by soprano Jeni Houser, was balanced and bewitching. The three soprani exquisitely showcased Strauss’ masterful weaving of vocal lines. Bass Michael Adams, as the minor character of the Lackey, stood out as resonant and commanding. As the Dancing Master, FWO’s studio artist Ian McEuen struck a fine pose both vocally and comically.
The bee in the bonnet of this opera’s bouquet and of the whole festival’s list of soprani must be Audrey Luna, whose vocal ability and entrenched characterization of Zerbinetta could be compared to a hummingbird, the only bird in the world able to fly backwards as well as forwards. I was simply awestruck by Ms. Luna’s lithe vocal skill as the fickle light-hearted Zerbinetta. There is nothing light in the vocal skill requirements of the intensely difficult twelve-minute coloratura aria Zerbinetta sings to Ariadne, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin (“All powerful princess”). She tries to have a girl talk with her, basically telling the princess not to settle for the nectar of just one flower, but the princess will have none of it. Ariadne ignores her and goes off to brood some more in her cave. Luna flitted through her soubrette role and the famously long aria with ease and no sign of tiring to the final note. One would think she was born singing it.
Zerbinetta and the nymphs draw Ariadne out of the cave with news of the approaching young Bacchus, sung by tenor Corey Bix, who also performed the same role with the Washington National Opera. Bix was a strong singer, but not to the level of the soprani with which he’s cast. Still he filled the character’s majestic god stance and even sported purple-toned skin to accentuate his wine association.
Cecelia Hall, singing the pants role of the composer, made a memorable impression with her attractive lyric mezzo. Hall warmly sang the aria declaring the young composer’s fervent belief in the art of music, “Sein wir wieder gut” (“Composer’s Aria”). He will not be consoled until Zerbinetta turns on the charm.
William Madison, in the speaking part of the Major Domo, was an absolute hit with his piercing nasal voice, reminiscent of “Squiggy” from the Lavern and Shirley sitcom.
Whether you are a fan of high or low art, there is a something for all tastes in Fort Worth Opera’s production of what the British music critic and novelist, Edward Sackville-West once dubbed, “the most nearly perfect work of art Strauss and Hofmannsthal achieved.”
ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
Bass Performance Hall
Fourth and Calhoun Streets
Fort Worth, Texas 76102
Runs through May 12th.
Festival pass: $35-$200.Single tickets: $25-$200. Subscribers receive a discount. Former and current military may receive a 50% discount on two single tickets. Student rush tickets are available for $15.00.
For info and to purchase tickets, visit www.fwopera.org or call 1-817-731-0726 or 1-877-396-7372.