Haymarket Opera makes history delightfully with “Ariane et Bachus”

Sun Oct 01, 2017 at 3:03 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Kristin Knutson and Scott Brundscheen in the title roles of Marin Marais' "Ariane et Bachus" at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Charles Osgood
Kristin Knutson and Scott Brundscheen in the title roles of Marin Marais’ “Ariane et Bachus” at Haymarket Opera. Photo: Charles Osgood

Saturday night’s event at the Studebaker Theater was truly musically historic–the first fully staged production of Marin Marais’s opera Ariane et Bachus since its 1696 premiere, presented by Haymarket Opera. “I’ve been waiting for this for three hundred years,” said one wag in the audience.

What a long way Chicago’s spunky Baroque opera company has come in just six years.  The performance, which opened the company’s seventh season, also marked several firsts for Haymarket Opera: the first under new executive director Dave Moss; the debut of the Haymarket Opera Ballet Company; and the company’s first appearance in the refurbished theatrical space of the Fine Arts Building.

This production was three years in the making, from the time Haymarket artistic director Craig Trompeter first contacted musicologist Silvana Scarinci when he learned that she was preparing a new performing edition of Marais’ long-lost Ariane et Bachus.

In its most ambitious and elaborate staging to date, Haymarket Opera scored a home run. Saturday’s performance of Marais’ tragédie en musique was vocally superb, visually sumptuous and utterly beguiling. The production proved as musically scrupulous and stylistically informed as one expects from Haymarket, without ever feeling like a dry scholarly exercise for Baroque nerds. There is just one more performance Tuesday night and this is not an event to be missed.

Marin Marais (1656-1728) was best known for his melancholy viol music, spotlighted in the popular 1991 film Tous les matins du monde starring Gerard Depardieu. His four operas were overshadowed by those of Lully in his lifetime as well as thereafter, and remain largely terra obscura even in early music circles today.

The Classically inspired plot of Ariane et Bachus, taken in part from Ovid’s Metamophosis, concerns the amorous adventures of the usual array of mythic gods and goddesses. (One suspects individual characters are metaphorical stand-ins for specific members of the French royalty with allusions that are likely lost to history.)

Ariadne (Kristin Knutson) is bewailing her rejection by Theseus; she is pursued by Adraste (Ryan de Ryke) who himself has abandoned the  faithful Dircee (Kimberly McCord). Bacchus (Scott Brunscheen) arrives in due course and he and Ariadne fall in love on schedule. The rejected Adraste convinces the goddess Juno (Erica Schuller) to help him. Juno confuses the sleeping Ariadne with a dream-spell in which Bacchus abandons her for Dircee, who then inhabits Ariadne’s body. After more bizarre machinations, Bacchus kills Adraste (offstage), all is resolved and Ariadne and Bacchus live happily ever after until the next opera.

Even with Haymarket’s usual elegant and detailed programs, the plot of Ariadne is—well, baroque, even by standards of the genre. For the first two acts, the bewildering succession of handsomely costumed gods and goddesses flitting across the stage makes Wagner’s Ring narrative seem like Waiting for Godot.

Never mind. The best approach is to just sit back and enjoy Marais’ tuneful music, some fine singing and the delightful period staging.

After six seasons Haymarket Opera has completely imbibed the stylized movements of the genre. As directed by Sarah Edgar, the physical movements and elaborate hand gestures of the cast seem wholly natural rather than artificial, and have a logic and integrity that preclude any unwonted humor. As always, the fanciful action is played completely straight and is respectful to the source and Baroque stage traditions, avoiding the postmodern tendency toward adolescent sniggering that has become de regueur in some opera quarters.

From top to bottom, the large cast was inspired. As the central character of Ariadne, Kristin Knutson is on stage for most of the action. While her slender soprano is somewhat monochrome in coloring, her vocal flexibility and dramatic chops made the character’s mercurial mood changes believable and compelling.

Scott Brunscheen delivered the finest vocalism of the evening, singing with a warm, liquid tenor as Bacchus. Ryan de Ryke brought a strong baritone and nice wink of irony to his fuming as the rejected Adraste. Kimberly McCord was once again effective vocally and dramatically as Dircee.

David Govertsen’s ample bass anchored the low end, costumed as a somewhat rabbinical magician Geralde. Aaron Wardell brought a firm baritone and aptly officious air to the king Aenarus. Natalie Colas made her presence felt as Ariadne’s Despina-like confidante, Corcine.

Filling out the cast effectively were Erica Schuller’s imposing Juno, Olivia Doig’s amusing Amour, Kyle Sackett as Lycas and Justin Berkowitz as Phantase.

The 2-1/2 hour performance (including intermission) was seamlessly staged by Edgar. As with Gluck’s Orphée et Eurydice, currently running at Lyric Opera, dance is an integral part of this opera. The five members of Haymarket Opera’s new ballet corps (Joseph Caruana, Julie Benirschke, Andrew Erickson, Mary O’Rourke and Kali Page) added a vivacious and graceful Terpsichiorean element to Edgar’s vivid choreography.

At times one would have liked conductor Trompeter to vary tempos with greater nuance. Providing more expressive space for individual arias–which often seemed to quickly fly past undifferentiated–might have allowed the singers’ solo moments to make a stronger impact. Otherwise, Haymarket’s founder elicited springy and spirited playing from his gifted period-instrument colleagues, and making the best case for Marais’ engaging score.

Meriem Bahri’s colorful, richly brocaded costumes, with ample headwear plumage, provided a feast for the eyes. In his company debut designer Mike Winkelman showed a resourceful knack for Haymarket’s simple, period-mindful sets. You had to love the antique charm of the criss-crossing clouds that herald the heavenly Juno’s arrival.

After several years at the Mayne Stage in Rogers Park and the Athenaeum Theatre on the north side, Haymarket Opera has finally found an almost-ideal home. In addition to being more comfortable for audience members, the Studebaker Theater is conveniently located downtown, with excellent sight lines and a mid-size scale suited to intimate Baroque works. The acoustic remains on the dry side, for voices and instruments alike, but not enough to significantly impact the overall musical experience.

Ariane et Bachus will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Studebaker Theater in the Fine Arts Building. haymarketopera.org

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