Throughout my career, I have counseled the general opera-going public to never confuse the real-life person with their on-stage persona, regardless of the character they are playing. The swarthy, always in control characters that Clark Gable played on the silver screen, gave way to an insecure, boyish, real-life personage who had to marry up and up in order to advance his career. “The Duke” John Wayne, with the rugged style and ironed sided nature of all of his dramatis personae, was forever under the thumb of John Ford–the great movie director that is fully credited with making Wayne a star. In fact, when Ford felt that Wayne was getting too big for his britches, he busted him back to B-movie status; a lesson the latter learned quickly and never forgot…he didn’t cross Ford again, despite Ford berating him daily on the movie set even AFTER Wayne had attained superstar status.
In Richard Strauss’ part serious/part comedic opera Ariadne auf Naxos (performed in two parts: Prologue and “Opera”), he tackles this issue full force; but it is rarely articulated in critical commentary. The ever serious “composer” in the opera’s prologue presents himself (pants role, sung by Alice Coote) as someone who simply cannot bend or adjust his artistic principles to accommodate anything or anyone, until–in private–his paycheck is suddenly threatened! Similarly, the flighty, sexy Zerbinetta (Anna Christy) who comes across to her fans as the break-your-heart/unfaithful-lover type, reveals in more private moments that all she really wants in real life is one man who will love only her. Ultimately, no one is who they seem to be when they are ‘on-stage’, and some directors (Nic Muni comes to mind) have successfully staged this opera in a way that helps to expose its underbelly. The current production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which debuted in the late 90’s, does not delve this deeply. Instead, we get a very handsome, four-square solid, period presentation that is nicely directed by John Cox based upon Robert Perdziola’s original production (also directed by Cox), and viewed at its final dress rehearsal on Wednesday November 16, 2011.
The farcical Prologue is meant to be fun, with its biting satire of both high-brow, and low-brow entertainers who are to perform at the home of a wealthy Viennese patron. At the last moment, due to dinner running late and a fireworks display that must start at exactly 9:00 p.m., the two very different performances are ordered to be combined and performed together, at the same time, with the entertainers left to decide on how to blend the content. Egos and tempers flair, wigs begin to be thrown, insults hurled, and side deals are made. Two seasoned veterans, Eike Wilm Schulte, and David Holloway ply their craft as the Music Master and Major Domo, while Edward Mout makes the most of his gem arietta as the Dancing Master. The aforementioned Alice Coote delivers a choice rendering as the Composer. Strauss teases us throughout the Prologue by giving the Composer very short snatches of glorious melody, pulling up just short of our full listening satisfaction. He does it time and again, until he finally provides this character with a complete paean on the musical arts that closes the relatively short first half. Coote provided full-throated, solid vocalism throughout.
“The Opera” portion of the opera (ie. the next Act), allows us full access to singers/characters that were only ‘hinted at’ during the prologue. Delightful were Nili Riemer, Jamie Barton, and Kiri Deonarine (Naiad, Dryad, and Echo); their voices all splendid individually, but harmonizing together beautifully–with Barton a particular standout. Matthew Worth (Harlekin), Wilbur Pauley (Truffaldino) and James Kryshak (Scaramuccio) provided slapstick style vaudeville/commedia dell’arte antics, while Rene Barbera lent his effortless tenor to the role of Brighella–Lyric audiences will surely hear more from this Operalia multi-award winner soon. Anna Christie brought us a bright voiced and vibrant Zerbinetta, and was intelligently measured in her big second half aria. The role of Bacchus (Brandon Jovanovich) seems to be reversely akin to that of Brunnhilde in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried…he does not appear until late into the opera, he comes to the stage basically fresh, and has only an elongated duet to sing with Ariadne, who has already been singing for some time. One almost wonders if Strauss has parodied Wagner here–as the musical similarities are so glaring; but that is entirely academic. Mr. Jovanovich sings the tricky (if somewhat thankless) role with great aplomb. His voice seemed secure, even in the upper-most reaches of vocal phrases that have brought many a helden-esque tenor to their knees.
Ultimately, however, this opera is entitled Ariadne auf Naxos and–needless to say–a few direct moments have to be spent on the title character, which I have saved for last intentionally:
Singing the role of Ariadne is Amber Wagner, a relative newcomer to this challenging repertoire. She delivered stout overall singing, peppered with moments of great power, as well as fine, impressive pianissimi. It is clear that Ms. Wagner will continue to pursue this repertoire and will, no doubt, over the years amalgamate her singing and acting to grow into a first rate performer of this material. The good news is that she has time to grow, and she surely will.
Finally, it is no secret that I have been a long-time, stalwart principal artist, great friend (and cheerleader) of this world-class opera company. I offer this “review” simply because I felt I had something to say, and my readers enjoy and respect my candor. I am fully aware that I critiqued a final dress rehearsal, but so have the finest critics worldwide when scheduling does not permit their attendance at a premiere. It is, of course, very important to make that fact exceedingly clear as I have done several times. It is also noteworthy that LOC is undergoing some extreme changes, while attempting to control budget costs during these very difficult economic times. It is my opinion that we must continue to put the FINEST talent on our stage at all times. It is a fine line to walk as we ALL attempt to do our part in the arena of expense mitigation. Therefore, we continue to wish new General Director Anthony Freud and his full team of Administrators the best of luck as we move ahead into the future.