'Ariadne' is an offbeat operatic delight

03.23.10
Erik Nielsen
The Justice

By Sujin Shin

I had been to the Shubert Theater once before to see the Boston Lyric Opera's production of Carmen. I always
expect great shows from BLO productions and since Carmen did not disappoint last time, I was incredibly excited to be back to see the latest operatic production by the BLO, Ariadne auf Naxos.

This humorously self-deprecating opera starts out with the stage set like the backstage area of an actual opera. The composer begins fretting about the start of his opera, which is due to open in 15 minutes. The backstage is already a bit of a chaotic arena, with the opera stars bickering with the Commedia dell'Arte performers who are set to perform after them. The composer laments that the audience will lose the depth and profundity of the music to the circus performing after them. Then, the richest man in Vienna, who is the patron of both acts, says he wants the two performances mashed together so that a fireworks show can occur at exactly 9 p.m. At this, the composer nearly breaks down. Only the music master is there to console him until Zerbinetta, the female leader of the comedy troupe, warms up to the composer and convinces him to allow the change. Finally, it is time for the curtain to go up, and in a last moment of confusion and despair of what he's gotten into, the composer throws up his score in exasperation and runs offstage hoping for the best.

I could not stop laughing during the first act. The one-liners exchanged on stage and Zerbinetta's witty and biting dialogue were more entertaining than most stand-up comedy I see nowadays. But I found this a kind of funny metaphor for life. Life is a completely unpredictable roulette. There are going to be serious moments as well as moments where you enjoy life to the fullest, laughing, cajoling and being happy.

The opera-within-the-opera begins in the second act with a beautiful and romantic overture. There is Ariadne singing of all of her torments and how she would like to die. The Commedia dell'Arte performers jump in to cheer up the princess, though her role is to be depressed throughout the whole opera.

The story of Ariadne continues as Bacchus falls head-over-heels in love with her. But just before Ariadne and
Bacchus' final song together, Zerbinetta returns to poke fun at romances between women and gods. The opera ends with Bacchus and Ariadne embracing and transforming into constellations in the sky.

From reading the press packet before the show, I gleaned that Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, had a very professional relationship. They never addressed each other by name. They rarely saw each other-their correspondences were largely through written mail. And so I wondered, as a musician unfamiliar with much of Strauss' work, if these unfathomably polite men would create a very "polite" score. Would the stiffness in their letters and correspondence come through as stiffness in the music? I was absolutely wrong. When the music was romantic, it was the most romantic, most longing, most lovesick and most beautifully melodic that music could be. When the music was dark, it was the heaviest, the most grounded, most deeply melancholic music in the score. And even though Strauss exaggerates his melodies, there are still seamless transitions between the different styles; occasionally the style shifted on the turn of a dime, but it still made sense. Hofmannsthal's libretto complemented the music perfectly and the dialogue is witty, ironic and funny. And not what I like to call Friends funny, where funny situations just happen to the characters, but the type of funny that thoughtful and clever gibing would create.

Of all the theatrical and musical performances I ever attended, I have never seen a more eclectic yet finely
synchronized band of characters and artists. All the main voices were superiorly toned and driven by the power of years of training. The woman who played the composer, Edyta Kulczak, gave a superb performance-her voice was rich and strong yet light enough to fit her amusing character, a nervous young composer who takes himself and his work a little too seriously. Jake Gardner, the music master, filled the theater with his thick and rumbling baritone, supporting the lighter voices with his heavy and full-bodied one. Julius Ahn's voice was more than just strong; it was energetic. It drove confidently to the top notes with ease and quality timbre, one that fit his "leader of the troupe" character of the dance master. And Brandon Jovanovich, with his ringing and potent voice, rounded out his character, the god Bacchus. And though I commend all the performers of Ariadne auf Naxos, two performers of the cast particularly struck me and left me in awe of their talent.

Rachele Gilmore plays the lovely and caustic Zerbinetta. After hearing many women with voices that were beautiful yet heavy-toned, I was taken aback by Gilmore's sweeter and much lighter voice. I realized with great joy that she is a coloratura soprano. Coloraturas are the power divas of the opera world-they are the ones who have the range, the dexterity and the incredible vocal capacity to handle super-high F's and blazing-fast 64-note runs or arpeggios. I sat in disbelief as her voice flew higher and higher. "She couldn't possibly!" I said to myself. And then she did. I was impressed beyond words, and so was most of the audience. It's the mark of an incredible performer when people can't even wait until the end of your aria to start clapping.

And then there was Marjorie Owens, the prima donna who played Ariadne, the woman whose voice's sheer power and beauty struck me dumb. Her voice was clear and rich. Her stage presence was arresting and strong. Owens' voice incurred in me a feeling that few musical performers can. Goosebumps exploded all over my skin, and I couldn't stop smiling. But Owens didn't just excite my musical ear; she also deepened my appreciation of the arts and the talent that I could be exposed to, all because her voice was so entrancing.

Of course, the performers wouldn't be able to show off their talents if it weren't for the Boston Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Erik Nielsen. The dexterity of the instrumentalists at the BLO never ceases to amaze me. I also appreciated greatly Nielsen's sensitivity to the actors on stage. Not once did the orchestra overpower the singers, but also not once did the orchestra cripple under the vocalists' gusto, even during the powerful and bombastic parts where the singers were giving it all that they could muster. Finely attuned to the rest of the show and also to his musicians, Nielsen gave a masterful performance himself, even if it was hidden under the pit with only a gleaming baton occasionally rising above the ground to signify his hard work interpreting Strauss' operatic masterpiece.

Last time I visited the Shubert, I detailed my encounter with someone who I nicknamed Opera Diva. I didn't want to embarrass myself again, so this time I took care to dress up and look presentable. But as I did, I felt slightly out of place in the Shubert. It was still too grand for me. And then I saw her again: Opera Diva, in all of her mink-coated, silk-swaddled glory. But as she passed me to take her seat in the middle of the row, she looked down and said "Oh! Very pretty shoes!" I thanked her and admired my feet, suddenly feeling more comfortable in that theater than at any other moment in recent memory. I actually felt a bit like Ariadne; I only needed someone's acceptance to feel like a bigger part of this world. And I am not special. Everyone can enjoy opera if they only put away their stereotypes and open themselves up to it. I decided that I won't ever mention Opera Diva from this article on. To bring her up is to bring back my untrue stereotype of the traditional theater-goer. And that wouldn't be particularly fair. Oh, Opera Diva, my experience of the Boston arts culture would not have been complete without you!