Diving into the genesis of Richard Strauss’ opera Ariadne auf Naxos, the work comes across as a case of “life imitating art imitating life.” In the opera, an unnamed composer is told that his commissioned opera seria must perform in conjunction with the commedia dell’arte that was originally to follow because of a time issue—the Viennese patron has scheduled fireworks for the evening and they cannot be changed. In reality, Strauss composed the opera to follow librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.
In its first incarnation the opera was only 90 minutes long, but followed the four-and-a-half hour play; early audiences disliked the fact that they had to sit through Hofmannsthal’s work to see the Strauss opera. Early performances were unsuccessful, damaging Strauss’s reputation for a time.
So, much like his composer, Strauss had to make changes for time. The second version (which is the commonly performed version) added a prologue in place of the play. The (much) shorter opening distilled the explanation given for the unique plot. Gradually the new version took hold, and while never gaining the traction that Salome and Der Rosenkavalier would achieve, Ariadne remains part of the canon of early-20th century opera.
As the final work to open in their 2013 Festival, the Fort Worth Opera presents a production of Ariadne that is vocally and visually solid.
Directed by David Gately, the staging of the work is simple yet effective; for much of the opera (and especially in the second act) there is a heavy reliance on the stand-and-sing method. While with other operas this would take away from the production, in Ariadne it works and allows many of the singers to shine vocally.
The “trouser role” of the composer, sung by Cecelia Hall, pervades the prologue, alternating between dramatic and intensely lyrical passages. Hall has a quick, clear diction to accompany her beautiful singing voice, and the end result is captivating. The composer is accompanied by his music teacher, sung by Stephen Lusmann. Acting as both a therapist and agent, Lusmann provides able counterpoint to the composer’s harried exclamations while holding his own high standard of vocal prowess. William V. Madison tackles the non-singing role of the Major Domo hilariously with a short, clipped delivery that borers on the absurd while still being completely understandable. Rounding out the first act performers is Ian McEuen in the role of the dancing master. McEuen’s voice is completely suited for the role, but what stands out are his stage affections and body language. Graceful and lively, he garners laughs just for walking across the stage.
The second half brings us to the opera-within-an-opera. Marjorie Owens returns to the FWO stage to sing the role of Ariadne, a woman who has been stranded on a desert island. Owens possesses an exquisite instrument and has total control; she approaches the title role with a dark, smoky tone that reinforces Ariadne’s sadness while her stage presence commands attention—whether she is singing or “breaking character” while being upstaged by the commedia dell’arte prima donna Zerbinetta, sung by soprano Audrey Luna.
Luna provides much of the fireworks for the second act, and deftly navigates the role. Zerbinetta is written in the bel canto tradition, and Luna has no problems impressing all with her clear, controlled tone that is equally as stunning in the lower register as it is up in the coloratura range. The two women are joined by tenor Corey Bix in the role of Bacchus. Vocally, Bix matches up well with the other two women; his voice has a bell-like quality while maintaining the richness needed. He does, however, have an unfortunate tendency to sway when he is standing in place. During his arias in the second act, there were moments where the spotlights have a hard time keeping him in frame because of his back-and-forth motion.
Supporting the action of the second half are Jeni Houser, Amanda Robie and Corrie Donovan as three nymphs who are with Ariadne on the island and announce Bacchus’s arrival there. Accompaning Zerbinetta is her quartet of commedia performers who are shoehorned into the opera: Steven Eddy, Zac Engle, Anthony Reed and Michael Porter. Eddy stands out in particular both for his comic grace on stage as well as the one who eventually wins the hand of Zerbinetta (How? Strauss never said it was a good blending of the two troupes—so it remains a mystery).
The costume design for the production is especially well-done. Designed by Susan Memmott Allred, the prologue is dominated with shades of black, white and gray; in fact, there's no color on stage until the very end of the act, when some of the commedia members appear with part of their onstage costuming. The scenic design, by Robin Vest, is a mixed bag. The prologue, set in the patron’s home, is strikingly beautiful while completely devoid of color, and the second half is achieved with a series of flats and flying pieces. The design is good in concept, but the execution lacks the refined quality of many other FWO productions. From the audience, blemishes in painting and cutting are visible. The production is well-lit by Chad R. Jung’ design—it’s nice to see a production so bright and cheerful, eschewing some of the dimmer tendencies that pervade other opera productions.
The orchestra is spiritedly led by Fort Worth Opera Music Director Joe Illick. On one hand, the orchestra sounds fantastic. The musicality of the accompaniment adds to the production and provides a further depth that brings the story to life. On the other hand, the ensemble is, at times, too loud. On opening night, few of the performers were able to overcome the orchestra when they were playing at peak volume. This is a trend that has plagued the opera festival for years and is not limited to a single conductor. Perhaps it is time for the Fort Worth Opera and Bass Hall board to look into why this otherwise beautiful space is so plagued by sound levels and balance issues.
Ariadne is not the highpoint of Strauss’s operatic output, but it remains enjoyable and accessible to any and all who see it, and Fort Worth Opera’s production is solid and worth seeking out.
◊ Ariadne auf Naxos repeats 2 p.m. Sunday, May 12. The remainder of the Fort Worth Opera Festival schedule is below:
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 7 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 8 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
6 p.m. Thursday, May 9 >> McDavid Studio >> Frontiers Showcase #1
3 p.m. Friday, May 10 >> McDavid Studio >> Frontiers Showcase #1
7:30 p.m. Friday, May 10 >> Bass Hall >> The Daughter of the Regiment
2 p.m. Saturday, May 11 >> McDavid Studio >> Glory Denied
2 p.m. Sunday, May 12 >> Bass Hall >> Ariadne auf Naxos