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BLO’s opera ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ a Boston success

Erik Nielsen
Revere Journal

By Sheila Barth

The Boston Lyric Opera (BLO) is delighting its enthusiastic audiences with the North American premiere of Welsh National Opera’s acclaimed production of “Ariadne auf Naxos,” a play-within-a-play, that’s a Greek tragedy combined with commedia dell’ arte performers.

Also thrilling is young conductor, Erik Nielsen, and the orchestra, who enhance the dramatic and comedic impact of Strauss’ lovely music.

“Ariadne auf Naxos” is very different than what opera neophytes expect. The opera debuted in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1912 and was adapted in 1916, but is set in contemporary times. Its plot, staging, and librettos are more like musical theater, easy to understand, follow, and appreciate, despite being sung mostly in German with English projected subtitles; and the multi-generational audience enjoyed several facets of it.

The first act, only 40 minutes long called the Prologue, takes place back stage, with the pre-show hustle-bustle and jittery performers. Two diverse groups, an opera company and a commedia dell’ arte, are hired to perform at a party hosted by the richest man in Vienna. Backstage, the groups are calamitous, with the divas and prima donnas resentful of the common street performers, a happy-go-lucky, unperturbed group.

When the prima donna, composer, director and tenor are suddenly told they must fuse the two contrasting shows together into one production to save time, and that they must be done by 9 p.m., because the host is finishing off his evening with a big fireworks display, the classical group is thrown into a tizzy, while the street artists formulate a plan to make it work, ending Act I.

Act II is the opera-play, a combination of sophistication and silliness, classical and comedic, mythology and mayhem, doom and gloominess vs. optimism and joy, nicely performed by this skilled cast. A fascinating, layered, set that’s initially a backstage with steps and elevating-descending platforms, transforms into a desolate desert island and ragged cave that ultimately peels away to a celestial romantic scene, with radiating rays and dramatic stage fog.

This entire cast is accomplished, with many having performed on prestigious stages, nationally and internationally. Young American soprano Marjorie Owens as prima donna portraying Ariadne is fabulous. Her voice soars, yet softens, to capture her grief. Her chagrin at the comedians’ on-stage antics is also apparent. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich as her new lover, mythological god Bacchus, is magnificent, and soprano Rachele Gilmore, Boston University Opera Institute alumna, as commedia dell’ arte performer Zerbinetta, is delightfully coquettish and flirty, her voice lovely. Several of the company’s performers are Massachusetts residents, including bass David Cushing, (portraying comedian Truffaldino) who formerly lived in Revere, and currently in Milford. Tenor Julius Ahn, a Bostonian who was born in Korea and is performing with the BLO for the first time, shines as bandana-wearing, tattoed comedian Brighella and dance master; and beloved Boston actor Will LeBow in the English-speaking role of the majordomo is a riot.

The Welsh National Opera Company’s original creative team is overseeing this production, including revival directorchoreographer Dennis Sayers; set-costume designer, Dale Ferguson, and lighting designer Tim Mitchell. Don’t miss “Ariadne auf Naxos,” because it isn’t returning here. The company is heading to Europe to perform and won’t be in Toronto until 2011.