FAIRFAX CITY, Va., February 22, 2014 – The Virginia Opera wraps up its current production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” this weekend in Richmond’s posh Carpenter Theatre, a week after its brief but enjoyable sojourn here at GMU’s Center for the Arts. Once again and with surprising success, this feisty company, hailing from the Tidewater area of southeast Virginia, took an oddball yet accessible opera and transformed it into a crowd-pleasing entertainment.
Unfortunately, there were still a goodly number of unsold seats last weekend at the Center for the Arts, either indicating that Virginia Opera needs to step up its marketing efforts in northern Virginia, or that local audiences need to get a little less picky about avoiding operas they’re not familiar with.
“Ariadne” finds the otherwise rather serious late Romantic composer Richard Strauss in a rather puckish mood, adopting a “play within a play” structure to spoof the hyperventilating world of opera and theater as well as the egos and pretentious hierarchical structure that keeps everyone on edge.
The opera pokes fun as well at the often-clueless patrons of the arts who toss money at productions for vanity’s sake while having no clue how anything works backstage.
The plot of “Ariadne,” such as it is, resembles, in a way, the famously idiotic comedy subplot Shakespeare inserts, to great effect, in his “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Strauss’ opera, however, there’s yet another twist.
As the curtain rises, we find ourselves backstage as both a small opera ensemble and a troupe of vaudeville-style entertainers put the finishing touches on two modest productions a wealthy man has commissioned to perform after a formal dinner for honored guests at his palatial mansion.
Each set of entertainers is irritated by being forced to share a stage with the other. The opera composer and his chosen singers are particularly miffed at having to even associate with “low art.” It’s a feeling mutually shared by the pop entertainers who find the opera folks stuffy, shallow, and decidedly dated.
Making matters worse, not long before both ensembles are to go onstage, they’re curtly informed that dinner is running late, fireworks are to commence at precisely 9 p.m., and so they’ll somehow have to figure out—quickly—how to mash their productions together to speed things up so they’re finished before the deadline. The curtain drops on this chaos, which we get to view in full in the opera’s concluding act, where a young composer’s deadly earnest, high-art new opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” is constantly interrupted by the pop entertainers who shamelessly mug while attempting to change the opera’s ending into a happy one.
The jokes are endless in this opera, if a bit esoteric at times. It’s high art vs. low art, wealth vs. starving artists, reality vs. abstract philosophy, seriousness vs. cynicism. Musical jokes are not beneath Strauss either, as he pokes fun not only the deadly serious operas of Richard Wagner but also, one imagines, at his own tendencies to do likewise.
In short, the opera is an unusual but delightful mess, requiring an uncommonly skilled cast to pull it off. Not only must the singing be of high quality—at times requiring the skill sets of actual Wagnerian voices—but the acting, particularly for those who sing as part of the vaudeville troupe, must be loose, improvisatory, and self-consciously witty.
Virginia Opera, under the skilled hand of director Sam Helfrich, helps out here with a clever approach that keeps things accessible and down-to-earth.
Act I—really the opera’s short prologue—takes place in a backstage dressing and rehearsal space and is more expository than purely musical, dealing with the opera composer’s artistic pretentiousness, the vaudevillians’ lack of seriousness, and the offstage patron’s utter cluelessness. Its necessary to launching the hilarious second act, but the material can drag a bit, particularly when the audience needs to read it off the surtitles which translate the banter from the original German.
Mr. Helfrich and Co. chose to solve this problem rather cleverly by having his cast sing this act in English, making it far easier to follow and far easier for the cast to riff on things a bit without losing the audience.
This has the added advantage of emphasizing that the actual “show”—the second act—comes across as just that when it’s sung in the original German, with surtitles of course. It’s a simple but highly workable way of getting the audience involved.
Andrew Leiberman’s economical but cleverly designed set helps as well. The first act is set in a backstage constructed of faux concrete block painted white, essentially the same as most contemporary backstage space which is always surprisingly mundane when compared to the sumptuousness that audiences usually pay for onstage. It’s another simple but smart way to demonstrate that all art, whether high or low, begins with the same building blocks before the magic actually happens.
The second act simply reverses the walls of the set, allowing for surprisingly sumptuous projected scenery to effect this magical transformation.
Of course, all the directorial cleverness and designing brilliance in the world will fail in this opera if you don’t have the right cast. Fortunately, Virginia Opera chose well. Every character, large or small, pulls his or her weight in this production, making it a genuine ensemble success.
As the ultimate “Ariadne,” Christina Pier plays the temperamental Wagnerian diva to the hilt. But better yet, she has the hefty, substantial kind of soprano voice that makes it all quite real. Even better still, she gets some of the most beautiful vocal moments in the opera, and at times—before the next bought of low-hilarity begins—she transports the audience into genuinely high-Romantic moments.
Even this, though, is cleverly undercut by the trio of sprites—Amanda Opuszynski, Courtney Miller, and Jessica Julin—who float at her side in a watery scene, looking and acting like the Wagnerian Rhinemaidens they’re spoofing. It’s an amusing juxtaposition.
As Ariadne’s low-class musical nemesis, Zerbinetta, puckish soprano Audrey Luna, attired as a post-punk princess, takes a decidedly low-art approach to the whole mess and, as leader of her troupe, decides to rescue the doomed maiden from her inevitable tragic death in spite of the script. Ms. Luna plays the low-art meme to the hilt, supporting it with a rich, plummy voice that underlines her authority.
As Bacchus, supposedly Ariadne’s fatal nemesis ultimately becoming something else, tenor Ric Furman, another rising Wagnerian, provided a warmly romantic touch to the production in both his solo moments and in the opera’s soaring duets.
Although the part of the Composer is limited to the first act, the Composer gets to sing much of the best music in that stanza. It’s a trouser role that’s well handled by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Lauricella who, not surprisingly, does already have a good bit of Wagnerian experience under her belt, so to speak. Her passionate and skilled defense of high art is both profound and convincing, even though she’s eventually drawn to compromise with the saucy Zerbinetta before the first curtain falls.
In smaller roles, the rest of this excellent cast has fun and sings well, both as soloists and in ensembles, including Jake Gardner’s Music Teacher, and Zerbinetta’s wacky pals—Ryan Connelly, Christopher Burchett, David Blalock, and Matthew Scollin—who treat the whole production as a mind meld with the antic tradition of today’s popular “Reduced Shakespeare Company.”
Conductor Garrett Keast, in his company debut, kept things light and lively and always together, never easy in an opera that wants to feel like it’s a bit out of control. Under his baton, the orchestra performed convincingly and well.
One thing we found just a bit off-putting however was the use of the organ as a substitute, apparently, for more low strings in the orchestra. While it was surprisingly effective, we were nonetheless somewhat dismayed to note this and hope it’s not part of the increasing tendency of modern performing ensembles—particularly in traveling Broadway productions—to cut down on live musicians to save money.
Opera is one of the few places remaining where one gets to hear the kind of full orchestration that both classical and opera composers originally intended, a point made abundantly clear by the sheer musical excellence of the Washington National Opera’s production of “Showboat” last spring.
Somehow, opera companies, their patrons, and their sponsors are going to have to find a way, even in this still stalling economy, to dig a little deeper to hire a full complement of musicians. Or ticket prices will have to go up, with potentially unfortunate consequences. But whatever the case, no matter how well done, electronic substitution is not the way to go.
Rating: ** ½ (2 ½ stars out of 4)
Virginia Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” concludes its run this weekend at the Carpenter Theatre/CenterStage in Richmond, Virginia. For tickets and information, call 800-524-3849 or visit www.etix.com.