Once upon an island: Ariadne at Santa Fe Opera

July 31, 2018

Composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal misfired with their original version of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912 and fundamentally recrafted before it reached its final form four years later. Even so, it remained a peculiar piece, two operas rolled into one. The first act, the “Prologue,” shows the pre-performance shenanigans of an opera company and a comedy troupe who are ordered to interlock their competing shows into a single, unified piece for presentation at a Viennese mansion; and then the second act, the “Opera,” reveals the result. High art and low art collide, but ultimately they coalesce to argue that people should leave their lost loves in the past and seize new romantic opportunities that come their way.

The Strauss-Hofmannsthal work is entirely in German, but director Tim Albery decided to emphasize the different aesthetic levels by having the whole first act sung in his own English translation and the second divided between German (for the opera-within-the-opera) and English (for incursions by the comedians). Seat-back titles are provided for everything. Using the two languages to differentiate between the elevated and vernacular tones may help impose clarity on the mashed-up plot, but on the whole I don’t feel it makes much difference.

The sets (by Tobias Hoheisel) could hardly be more different in the two acts. The first unrolls in a long room or corridor with a series of doors that are used to less comedic effect than one might anticipate. In the “upstairs-downstairs” scheme of the mansion, this is definitely the utilitarian downstairs, attractive but unostentatious.

The second act unrolls on a parody of a Symbolist theatre set. A monumental, blue construction, it rather resembles a Richard Serra installation-sculpture and it may evoke a drop of water (Ariadne is marooned on an island surrounded by sea) or a tear (she is disconsolate). Within it is a structure that resembles an eggshell with a red interior — Ariadne’s cave, where she spends much of her time lying immobile. Lighting, by Thomas C. Hase, bathes the first set with indoor warmth and the second with sunlit intensity.

The two most sympathetic characters in this production, both vocally and dramatically, are Zerbinetta and the Composer. Soprano Liv Redpath, an apprentice singer here last summer, makes her official house debut with a winning portrayal of Zerbinetta, the lead comedienne. Rather than play her merely as a flirtatious coquette, as one sometimes sees, she rendered the character as naturally chipper, charming, and optimistic. She had the role firmly in hand, tossing off the trills and high E’s in her famous aria “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” as if the part was not all that difficult. (Oh, but it is.) Her voice is on the small side and was accordingly a bit out of scale compared to the rest of the cast.

She served as a foil to soprano Amanda Majeski, in the pants role of the ultra-serious Composer, who proclaims that there is nothing but pain and suffering in the world. Majeski lent a rich timbre to the part, and her dramatic presence left a mark. First encountering Zerbinetta, the Composer looks at her as if she is of an entirely different species, but we cannot miss how he gradually becomes more and more intrigued.

In a nice touch, Albery brings the Composer back onstage near the end of the opera to silently witness the love duet between Ariadne and Bacchus that he has composed. Then, at the point where Zerbinetta comes on to cheerfully announce the moral of the story — that we surrender ourselves to love when a new god approaches — the Composer is there to surrender his love to this sunny being who has so entranced him. At the end of the Ariadne-Bacchus duet, a canopy does not descend over the pair, as the score directs. Instead, a portion of the monumental blue set revolves, providing a new backdrop for the more humanizing Zerbinetta-Composer stage business, which we are left feeling is the point of this opera.

None of the singers in this cast showed great breadth of vocal coloring. Soprano Amanda Echalaz, as the Prima Donna in Act One and then Ariadne in Act Two, produced a big sound, but her lower range could fail to penetrate through the orchestra and her top notes were often achieved through swooping attacks rather than head-on. Individual notes could impress through their sheer power, but one listened in vain for them to connect into the sustained, sweeping phrases that Strauss invites. She looked good as Ariadne, noble in her bearing and draped in the classic black of a Greek tragedienne.

Tenor Bruce Sledge, as The Tenor in Act One and Ariadne’s lover Bacchus in Act Two, responded capably to the cruel demands of his high-lying part, also with brawn but not much tonal variety. This was a stentorian couple sprung from the pages of Wagner, as Strauss makes clear through various musical references. Among these are the well-coordinated close-harmony trio of Najade, Dryade, and Echo, enchantingly sung by apprentices Meryl Dominguez, Samantha Gossard, and Sarah Tucker; they weave about Ariadne’s island like Aegean Rhine Maidens.

Many smaller parts populate the action. Rod Gilfry portrayed the aging Music Master, his fully mature, no-longer-luscious baritone sounding appropriate for the part. As Harlequin, baritone Jarrett Ott gave a firm rendition of his aria, “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagan.” Kevin Burdette, in the speaking role of the Major-domo, delivered overstressed lines in a British-ish accent that seemed strange for the chief-of-staff at a Viennese mansion and was matched by nobody else in the cast. He suffocated the role’s potential humor.

Other performers did their bit for the ensemble: tenor Brenton Ryan, who brought bright-hued confidence to the role of the Dancing Master; tenor Matthew DiBattista as Scaramuccio; and a host of apprentice singers as the mansion personnel, production people, and comedy troupers. Costumes, also by Hoheisel, referenced the Roaring ’20s, with the comedy fellows looking very much of the Weimar Republic as they danced their vaudevillian routines, choregraphed by Kyle Lang.

James Gaffigan, a conductor on the rise, deserved serious applause for leading the small but crackerjack orchestra (fewer than 40 players for this piece) in Strauss’s waves of symphonic color. He found ways to energize the composer’s long-spanning lines through infusions of color and rhythmic drive. The Overture to Act II was a particularly admirable study in clarity, but he was in sync with the score’s possibilities throughout. The first act flew by, the largely static second act not so much; but that is the nature of this curious opera.

If you go

Santa Fe opera’s production of Ariadne auf Naxos continues with performances at 8 p.m. on August 1, 10, 15 and 23. Visit santafeopera.org or call 505-986-5900 for ticket prices and availability.

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