Ariadne auf Naxos (Boston Lyric Opera)

03.15.10
Erik Nielsen
EDGE Boston

By Ed Tapper

Long absent from the Boston opera stage, Richard Strauss’ witty pastiche, Ariadne auf Naxos is undergoing a
splendid revival at the Shubert Theatre. Originally composed in 1912, and revised in 1916, the work is a perennial favorite in many opera houses throughout the world, save for our fair city.

This is particularly strange since the original version of the work received its American premiere here in Boston, in 1969. BSO maestro Erich Leinsdorf led his orchestra in this televised event, in which the comic soubrette role of Zerbinetta was performed by an aspiring opera star named Beverly Sills. That performance is even available on DVD.

Oddly, the work all but vanished here from that time onward. In this production (co-sponsored by the Welsh Opera), Boston Lyric Opera is restoring "Ariadne" to vivid life, while scoring one its more resounding triumphs of recent years.

With respect to the visuals, the production is certainly adequate. The prologue is updated to the modern era, while the mythological figures of the ensuing opera are clothed in Classically-inspired fashion. The sets are fairly simple and serviceable, accentuating muted grays and off-whites. The production is enlivened by the fine stage direction of Neil Armfield. Save for a few obscene gags, apparently de rigeur these days, the intricately choreographed Commedia dell’Arte buffoonery is tasteful, clever, and remarkably well-timed by the troupe. Even at more static moments such as the lengthy final duet of Ariadne and Bacchus, Armfield keeps things animated and vital.

The orchestra is chamber-sized, a reduction sanctioned by the composer. After a tentative prelude, the ensemble improved during the course of Part One, the Prologue. More acclimated to Strauss’ considerable technical demands, the orchestra fared much better during the second part, the opera itself. Conductor of the Frankfurt Opera since 2002, Erik Nielsen is making his debut with the BLO, and, on opening night, was in firm control of his performing forces. His conducting was solid and stage-worthy throughout. And, fortunately, he was working with a highly talented group of singers.

The BLO Ariadne auf Naxos is impeccably cast. It is a rare treat to hear all the roles, down to the smallest bit,
performed by singers who possess just the right voices for the parts they are singing. The title heroine of this
opera within an opera is being sung by Marjorie Owens -- and she is a true find! Hers is a real dramatic soprano, sizeable and even throughout its registers. The high notes are impressive and have a true ring, while the low, chest voice is rich and clearly audible. She sings with a fine sense of line, and artistic shading of the voice. The "Es Gibt ein Reich," could hardly be bettered. Having heard her as Ariadne, one might easily instruct her to "Proceed directly to Die Walkure. This is one gorgeous, Wagnerian voice.

Of equal size and tonal warmth was the tenor of Brandon Jovanovich, who performed the role of Bacchus. He is a commanding stage presence with a voice of rare quality, and an ideal vocal match to Owens---a dream Siegmund to her Seiglinde. As Bacchus is the deus ex machina who ensures a happy end to the opera, the character appears very briefly in Part One, returning only for the finale of the opera. Mr. Jovanovich’s’ fine singing was worth the wait.

As Zerbinetta, the comic, Colombina figure, coloratura Rachele Gilmore is utterly charming. Her frothy soprano has just the right weight and color for the role. Wisely, she underplayed the coyness in her portrayal of the character, singing the role in a straightforward manner. She possesses vocal flexibility, and an easy extension to the upper reaches of the voice. The centerpiece of the entire opera, her treacherous aria, "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," was put away with élan and astounding ease.

Like Ms. Gilmore, Polish mezzo Edyta Kulczak is making her BLO debut in this production. She is appearing in the pants role of the Composer, a character present only in the Prologue. Yet, her refulgent voice and impassioned singing made a strong impression on the enthusiastic opening night audience. All of the lesser roles in both parts of the opera were delightfully realized.

By coincidence, the Metropolitan Opera has just finished a run of the opera. However, one could not envision a better sung production than that currently being offered by the Boston Lyric Opera. Performances run until
March 23. Don’t miss this one!