Welsh National Opera’s (WNO) production of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” ran at the Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) from March 12-23 in its North American premiere. The production was worth shipping across the Atlantic. Funny and well-acted, it wryly reimagines Strauss’s and Hofmannsthal’s dialogue between the comic and the serious as a commentary on the state of contemporary opera—simultaneously providing an impressive showcase for virtuoso singing.
“Ariadne” lends itself easily to multiple layers of self-reference and interpretation. It consists of a Prologue and an Opera, the first framing the second. In the Prologue, a prodigiously young Composer (mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak) is about to see his first opera, the very serious “Ariadne auf Naxos,” performed at the court of a Viennese nobleman. However, at the nobleman’s behest, the order is given for the new opera to be combined with a troop of harlequins also slated to perform that evening. The second act, the Opera proper, presents the resulting blend.
With irreverent glee, the WNO production transforms the “harlequins” of the original opera into a sort of rock band, dressed up in leather, tour T-shirts, and faded jeans. The Composer and his cadre become manifestations of the typical “classical establishment”: all ties, fine clothing and preening. They stick faithfully to Strauss’s score—no insertions of guitars or anything like that—but the context makes it clear that they’re talking less about the relationship between the comic and the serious and more about that between the “popular” and the “classical.” The conceit plays out well, especially as the Composer falls in love with the leader of the troupe, Zerbinetta (the soprano Rachele Gilmore). Their duet, “Ein Augenblick ist wenig, ein Blick ist viel” (“A Moment is Nothing, But a Glance is Everything”), let the tremendous youthful zest of both characters flower. Bursting with energy and grace, the singing was entrancingly light but full-voiced. The Composer’s resistance to the idea of combining the opera with the clown act slackens just long enough to agree to the fusion of the two—a decision he immediately regrets.
The second act consists of the opera proper, the Composer’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” The audience in the opera house implicitly becomes the audience in the house of the nobleman. The popular/classical concept of the Prologue seems to get dropped in the Opera; the harlequins stop being band members and become, somewhat disappointingly, actual harlequins (although one does wear sunglasses). The Opera itself could be substituted in any other production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” without much loss of continuity.
But the Opera works well enough on its own, which actually might in the end be healthier than forcing a particular production vision beyond its natural limits. Marjorie Owens’s stately, poised Ariadne provides a well-measured foil to Gilmore’s sprightly, impish Zerbinetta. The opera is, in effect, a showcase for the two very different types of sopranos—dramatic and coloratura—and each takes full advantage of the opportunity to have fun. Owens’s sturdy, firmly rooted rendition of the aria “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a Kingdom”) bolsters a part of the opera-within-an-opera that can tend to drag (which, to be fair, might simply have been the result of Strauss emulating the less-skilled idiom of a younger composer). It punches the same heights that Gilmore’s “Noch glaub’ ich dem einen ganz mich gehörend” (“I Still Believe I Belong to Someone”) does, by dancing around with ever more frenetic, outlandish stretches of virtuosity, the vocal equivalent of Dr. Seuss-like whimsy. She’s a delight just to watch, and even someone who never listens to classical vocal music couldn’t help but be amazed by the fact that a single human being can produce these sounds on her own.
The BLO, like all classical music institutions, is trying hard to find ways to engage new audiences, and particularly young audiences. Part of the allure of a lively, fun production like the WNO “Ariadne” is its ability to introduce opera to casual or first-time listeners without condescension or elitism.
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