BLO delights with ‘Ariadne’

Erik Nielsen
Boston Herald

By Keith Powers

So this rich guy commissions two operas - a comic one and a tragic one - to amuse his friends. Then he changes his mind, and orders them to be performed simultaneously. Backstage bickering ensues, creative minds clash, but money talks and the show must go on.

That’s exactly what happens in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which Boston Lyric Opera opened last night at the Shubert Theatre.

Of course it’s chaos, but in this smart production, borrowed from the Welsh National Opera, Strauss’ unhinged
amalgam of a creation works. Some versions of “Ariadne” stray toward genre navel-gazing; this production is set on fun from the get-go. It’s a Greek classic that takes a jolt of energy drink and never lets up.

Neil Armfield directs, and as great as the music is, he gets the credit for building cohesion in this tricky opera. Two sets (by Dale Ferguson) - an industrial backstage look in Act I, and a tattered Greek classic look that morphs into a “Star Wars”-apotheosis in Act II - contribute a compelling visual background.

The singing is solid throughout, dominated by Ariadne (dramatic soprano Marjorie Owens) and her foil Zerbinetta (fetching lyric soprano Rachele Gilmore). Both were making BLO debuts, and both will undoubtedly return. Owens, who sings with stadium-sized power, could fill many major roles as she grows artistically. Gilmore is the whole package - a clever actress with a top-notch voice and a winning manner.

Tenor Brandon Jovanovich (Bacchus) and mezzo Edyta Kulczak (the Composer) also sang with power, and the rich supporting cast, too numerous to acknowledge individually, sang and acted with distinction.

Erik Nielsen made a strong BLO debut on the podium, steering this terrific score in its intended direction - as support for the onstage voices. The score was written to not get in the way, and Nielsen made sure of it.

“Ariadne” is not without its problems, especially pacing. Many scenes - even the brilliant solo moments for Ariadne and Zerbinetta in the second act - are over-composed. But Strauss’ ultimate message, that comedy and tragedy tell the same story, only in different ways, cannot be missed in this crystal-clear interpretation. Playing it straight - an unusual approach for this heavily layered tale - proves to be the best approach, and the BLO has assembled a fine team of artists to make it happen.