The combination of mythological drama and bel canto–style comedy may be a bit of a stretch for the fledgling company, but ultimately the problems are more with the material itself and the venue than with the performance.
“Ariadne auf Naxos” is an odd duck by any standard. It was originally written as a one-act postlude to a German translation by Strauss’s frequent collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal of Moliere’s comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” in 1912. The difficulty and expense of mounting a play and an opera on the same bill eventually forced Strauss and Hofmannsthal to produce a rewrite that allowed the opera to stand on its own. It was first performed in 1916 and has been in circulation ever since.
The comic Prologue sets up the situation: the “richest man in Vienna” has engaged both a production of the tragic opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” and a commedia dell’arte troupe as after-dinner entertainment for his guests. To save time, he decrees that both shows must take place simultaneously. The performers can work out the details. The resulting conflicts between the opera company’s Composer, Music Master, Prima Donna, and Tenor on one side and Zerbinetta and her group of buffoons on the other generate plenty of laughs, most of them at the expense of the self-important composer and his egotistical leading lady.
After intermission, we see the hybrid opera within an opera set up in the Prologue. Abandoned on Naxos, Ariadne (with the help of three nymphs) yearns for death, but her lamentations are repeatedly interrupted by Zerbinetta and company, who are determined to cheer her up. Drama eventually wins out, however, when Bacchus arrives, declares his love, and joins Ariadne in a long, rapturous love duet.
The opera within an opera has been a bit of a problem from the beginning. At least one early British critic, for example, found the scene with Bacchus to be tedious. My view is that getting the audience to take Ariadne seriously is a tough sell, considering how effective Strauss and Hofmannsthal have been at making fun of the pretensions of operatic tragedy. Strauss’s music shifts the mood appropriately, but you still need fully committed and compelling performances by Ariadne and Bacchus to pull off that big a change in tone.
Winter Opera has a pair of strong voices in soprano Meredith Hoffman-Thompson and tenor Scott Six, but neither of them were particularly convincing in that final scene. Ms. Hoffman-Thompson’s stock theatrical gestures, which work so well when Ariadne is a foil for Zerbinetta and company, felt out of place here, and Mr. Six seemed not to be acting at all. They made beautiful music, but I don’t think that’s enough to compensate for the problem Strauss and Hofmannsthal have created.
Comedy is king in this “Ariadne”. Soprano Mary Thorne wowed the crowd with her coloratura fireworks and was convincingly seductive in her scenes with the terribly serious young Composer, a “pants” role sung with appropriate intensity by mezzo Sarah Heltzel. As Zerbinetta’s four clowns, John-Andrew Fernandez, Charles Martinez, Zach Rabin, and Jon Garrett impressed with their fine quartet singing and physical comedy. Director Marie Allyn King’s decision to make them into the four Marx Brothers, complete with choreography lifted from “Duck Soup”, was an inspired one.
Baritone Eric McCluskey was all wisdom, authority, and precise diction as the Music Master. His scenes with Philip Touchette’s pompous Major-Domo (a spoken role) set the comic tone for the “Prologue” nicely. The voices of Megan Higgins, Sara Gottman, and Rachel L. Smith blended beautifully as Ariadne’s long-suffering nymphs.
The costumes by Teresa Doggett (a.k.a. The Hardest-Working Woman in Show Biz) were unfailingly appropriate, and I loved the Marx Brothers outfits. Rebecca Hatelid is credited with the English supertitles, which are easily visible above the stage. The translation struck me as a bit clumsy, but it did the job.
Conductor Timothy Semanik’s small orchestra (20 players vs. the 30 or more Strauss calls for) had a surprisingly big sound, some opening night intonation issues aside. There were certainly balance issues with the singers, but fewer than I would have expected given then physical limitations of the venue.
Speaking of which: “Ariadne” is being staged in the opulent second-floor ballroom of The St. Louis Woman’s Club, a converted 1895 mansion at 4600 Lindell in the Central West End. Given that the opera takes place in the ballroom of a mansion, that adds a bit of extra-musical resonance, especially when you consider that there’s an optional dinner preceding the show downstairs. The downside is that the orchestra has to be placed on the ballroom floor in front of the stage, with the audience behind them on freestanding chairs. There are no risers, so sightlines are a problem for all but the first few rows.
It’s not, in short, an ideal arrangement. It’s a testament to Winter Opera’s skill and dedication that their “Ariadne” is, despite these limitations, both artistically satisfying and highly entertaining for most of its length.
Now in its fifth season and with a new home at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts on the campus of Chaminade Preparatory School, Winter Opera stands poised to be an important player in the growing opera scene locally. If this production is any indication, we can expect great things from them.
The final performance of Winter Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” is Sunday, January 29, at 3 PM. Their season concludes with “La Boheme” at the Viragh Center on March 2 and 4. For more information, you may visit winteroperastl.org.