Vancouver Opera

Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss
In German with English surtitles

Dates 3, 6, 8 &10 March 2007, 7.30pm Venue Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Reviewer John Jane

Ariadne auf Naxos is commonly regarded as one of Richard Strauss’s most under-appreciated gems and considered by many as too difficult and too expensive to produce. It’s easy to see why it’s so rarely staged; there are few arias that would be instantly recognized by opera neophytes. Moreover, while audiences get to enjoy two opera for the price of one, there is a time imbalance between the Prologue, which lasts 45 minutes, and the second act Opera, which lasts an hour and a half.

Vancouver Opera have ambitiously assembled a superb cast and surrounded them in enchanting seventeenth century theatrical sets and costumes. The result is surely one of the most enjoyable nights of opera anywhere on the planet.

Act one is entirely dedicated to the Prologue, and is intended to acquaint the audience to how the performance of Ariadne comes to take place along with a show by a commedia dell'arte troup in the home of a wealthy Viennese sponsor.

The curtain rises on typical pre-performance mayhem in the home of the rich Viennese patron, who has commissioned three events, an opera, a Harlequinade, and a late evening firework display to entertain his dinner guests. The Music Master (Theodore Baerg) is quarreling with the Major-domo (Michael Gormley) and the Composer (Beth Clayton) is quarreling with a servant about access to his singers. Things get even worse when the Major-domo returns to announce that, to ensure that the firework display begins on time, the opera and the comedy must run simultaneously on the same stage. At this point the over-sensitive composer is fraught with despair and threatens to leave the production. The Music Master manages to prevent his hasty action by reminding him of the 50 ducets he will receive as payment.

The role of composer of Ariadne, is typically accorded to a mezzo-soprano, who in this staging, is arguably the most interesting character in the first act. Beth Clayton delivers a truly compelling performance in this role and unquestionably deserved the generous applause afforded her at the end of Act one. Musically superb, Ms. Clayton’s unrestrained interpretation connected with the audience and made the Composer’s anxieties totally believable. I found it impossible to be unmoved by the duet with Zerbinetta (Tracy Dahl), temperamentally, his exact opposite, in which the two sympathize with each other’s pain.

After an interval, the curtain rises on the opera itself, overseen by the patron and his guests. Robin Vest’s set design resembles the rocky shoreline of Naxos. At one side is a cave in whose entrance Ariadne can be seen asleep, watched by three nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo. They express sympathy with Ariadne's sorrow but they are unable to mollify her broken heart.

Zerbinetta and Harlequin also commiserate with the melancholic jilted princess with the poignant Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen, but only succeed in adding to her torment. Zerbinetta pleads with Ariadne alone, shamelessly baring her soul and dispensing her own brand of wisdom. She advises that the only cure for a broken heart is to find a new lover.

When the god Bacchus (John Mac Master) arrives on Naxos he mistakes Ariadne (Lori Philips) for a Goddess; she meanwhile confusingly believes him to be the messenger of death, but eventually responds to his promise of love as they sing their lover’s aria, Gibt es kein Hinuber to close.

Winnipeg soprano Tracy Dahl is marvelous as the coquettish Zerbinetta. Aside from delivering good coloratura in her showpiece aria, she reveals flawless comic timing and a natural penchant for physical comedy.

Strauss’s masterpiece shows that comedy and tragedy can co-exist in the same theatre and bring about such joyous synergy.

© 2007 John Jane