Lyric’s winning production and a worthy cast make for a mostly delightful “Ariadne”

Sun Nov 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Alice Coote as the Composer in the Lyric Opera's production of Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos." Photo: Dan Rest.

For all its broad humor and effervescent music, Ariadne auf Naxos is a daunting assignment for any opera company. The practical logistics — musical and dramatic — of pulling off this bifurcated opera-within-an-opera structure with its mercurial mix of antic backstage comedy and soaring lyricism are enough of a challenge. But fielding a cast with the vocal gleam, stamina and versatility to handle the four principal roles is an almost impossible task.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago opened its revival of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos Saturday night.  And while there were some uneven vocal moments along the way, one brilliant standout performance and a remarkably clever and imaginative production largely made up the balance.

The John Cox-Robert Perdziola staging remains a winner — a smart, stylish production that provides artful visual scaffolding for Strauss’s biting yet affectionate portrait of the egos, frustrations and backstage madness that accompanies opera performance, and more broadly, the compromises and eternal dilemmas of the creative artist.

In the Prologue, Perdziola’s dingy set for the private theater backstage  of the “richest man in Vienna” — but clearly not a big spender — set the scene deftly. The designer’s “stage” for the actual opera is daring and charmingly theatrical, effectively knocking down the fourth wall, with fluently shifting perspectives from the house and backstage.  Cox’s direction is full of similarly inspired touches from the stagehands hanging about to the silent, seated assistant glumly paging through the score at the side of the stage.

The clear vocal standout was Alice Coote who proved simply sensational as the Composer. The English singer completely embodied the frustrated and idealistic young artist whose masterpiece is being systematically destroyed by the plans of her obtuse (and unseen) benefactor. Coote’s ample high mezzo fits this trousers role like a perfectly tailored glove and her fearless vocalism and emotional commitment in the aria in praise of music provided the high point of the evening.

Much of the advance publicity of this production centered on Amber Wagner’s appearance in the title role after the originally scheduled Deborah Voigt bowed out this past summer. Some predicted that this would mark the Oregon native’s career-making stage appearance. And while the Ryan Opera Center alumna sang solidly and professionally opening night, her performance fell somewhat short of being that kind of breakout event.

Amber Wagner as Ariadne and Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus in "Ariadne auf Naxos." Photo: Dan Rest

The role of Aridane is a difficult one, calling for a comic flair the first half of the evening and a rich bountiful soprano able to scale the climactic duet with Bacchus in part two. Wagner’s voice is striking to be sure — a big luxuriant instrument, rich throughout a wide range. Few sopranos possess the kind of deep dark chest tone she showed Saturday night, and Wagner handled the long duet skillfully, with glowing tone and a sense of Strauss’s long line.

But her singing also seemed overly cautious and deliberate at times, as if she were husbanding her resources for that demanding final scene. One wanted for her to cut loose with the thrilling, refulgent tone she possesses. Also, the soprano still appears not entirely comfortable on stage dramatically, and seemed more engaged with the Prima Donna’s comic diva histrionics in the Prologue than Ariadne’s soaring passions.

Brandon Jovanovich proved well suited to his duo-roles as the follically challenged Tenor and operatic stage part of Bacchus. The long closing duet is a famously treacherous minefield and Jovanovich didn’t emerge unscathed, with his power clearly starting to flag near the end. Still, he characterized well throughout — you have to love his bespectacled, grimly efficient score-reading while “offstage” — and largely brought the heroic tone and strength required.

Anna Christy has become a Lyric favorite in recent seasons for high-flying soprano roles, as with her Olympia in the company’s season-opening Tales of Hoffmann. While she clearly possesses the light-footed grace and charisma for the flirtatious dancer Zerbinetta, in this role debut Christy proved overparted vocally. Her singing was thin-toned and underprojected throughout the Prologue, and Christy’s fluttery rendering of Zerbinetta’s showpiece aria (Grössmachtige Prinzessin) was choppy and short-breathed, lacking the coloratura brilliance, agility and finesse required. Being short and cute with a high voice doesn’t automatically make you a Zerbinetta.

The numerous comprimario roles were filled out with distinction. As Zerbinetta’s bumptious commedia dell’arte partners, Matthew Worth (Harlekin) Wilbur Pauley (Truffaldino), James Kryshak (Scaramuccio) and, especially, the vibrant tenor René Barbera (Brighella) proved a lively and well sung band of buffoons. Nili Riemer, Jamie Barton and Kiri Deonarine were the admirable trio of nymphs.

In the Prologue, Eike Wilm Schulte was a wonderfully sympathetic Music Master, David Holloway, an unctuous and condescending Major Domo, and Edward Mout a graceful Dancing Master. Evan Boyer as the Lackey, Bernard Holcomb as the Officer and Paul Scholten as the Wigmaker rounded out the cast.

Sir Andrew Davis’s Straussian credentials were manifest throughout the evening as he deftly handled the opera’s mercurial mix of light caprice and rhapsodic vocal lines. The conductor’s tendency to linger too lovingly at lyrical high points sometimes impeded momentum, but on the whole this was idiomatic Strauss conducting and the Lyric Opera Orchestra supplied all due Viennese refinement, flexibility and wit as required.

Ariadne auf Naxos runs through Dec. 11. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244

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