High Notes Abound in 'Ariadne'

From left, Wolf Trap Opera's Anne-Carolyn Bird, Marjorie Owens, Leena Chopra and Jamie Van Eyck in "Ariadne."
From left, Wolf Trap Opera's Anne-Carolyn Bird, Marjorie Owens, Leena Chopra and Jamie Van Eyck in "Ariadne." (By Carol Pratt)
By Robert Battey
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 18, 2008

The Wolf Trap Opera Company's final staged offering of the season -- Richard Strauss's curious opera-within-an-opera "Ariadne auf Naxos" -- is a near-triumph. The company's remarkable young artists presented a vocal feast at Friday's opening at the Barns.

The work itself is somewhat problematic; it is an abridged version of an extended divertissement that Strauss and his longtime librettist Hugo Hofmannsthal created to be performed immediately following Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Molière's play "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." Future performances of the total six-hour combined entertainment being highly unlikely, Strauss then composed a brief prologue to take the place of the Molière play, setting forth the comedic conflict that would take place in the opera proper.

Although he was still in his prime in 1916, with nine more operas yet to be composed, Strauss at this point was starting to quote himself, unconsciously as well as deliberately. The white-hot terseness of "Elektra" here gives way to a discursive, counterpoint-laden texture that eventually tires the ear. This fits in with, or is perhaps driven by, an increasing focus on Hoffmannsthal's sometimes gaseous aesthetic ruminations.

The work's greatest failing is that it promises something more entertaining than it delivers. The Prologue is a frothy delight of badinage and persiflage, as the idealistic composer of a new opera on the Ariadne legend, already beside himself with standard opening-night crises, goes ballistic upon being told that his work will have to be performed simultaneously with the louche stylings of a commedia dell'arte troupe. The setup prepares the audience for a Marx Brothers farce, but the opera itself is then done virtually straight, with one extended vaudeville sequence in the middle. Given that a number of the comedians are onstage throughout the opera, we cannot but wonder at their reserve. Indeed, a number of characters' motivations are unclear during the opera.

Be that as it may, this performance featured astonishing vocalism.

Strauss's predilection for high voices is reflected in both the three nymphs who attend Ariadne in her exile (Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jamie Van Eyck and Leena Chopra) and the three principal female roles; Ariadne (Marjorie Owens), Zerbinetta (Erin Morley) and the trouser role of the Composer (Elizabeth DeShong). These six artists, plus tenor Diego Torre (Bacchus) were standouts in a uniformly strong cast. Torre and Owens's extended duet almost channeled "Tristan" in its volcanic force, Morley's coloratura darted effortlessly in all directions, and DeShong rested from her razor-sharp exertions in the Prologue by playing keyboards (for real) during the opera. In the smaller roles, James Kee's voice seemed particularly beautiful.

Conductor Timothy Long had his hands full; the small orchestra is constantly divided into numerous subgroups, and because of space limitations the larger instruments had to be placed up on the floor behind him. His balancing and pacing of this complex score were admirable.

Designer Erhard Rom made use of every inch of the Barns' small stage, setting off three busy adjoining spaces very effectively, and costume designer Mattie Ullrich gave the cast some dazzling and amusing tableaux. Director Thaddeus Strassberger almost overwhelmed with funny (and occasionally raunchy) business in the prologue, but the challenge of explaining what happens (or doesn't) and why during the opera is perhaps an insurmountable task. The final performance will be tomorrow evening at 8.

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