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Richard Strauss
14 Aug 2011

Ariadne auf Naxos, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble

Today’s general public labors under the unfortunate misconception that in order to enjoy opera, one needs to be educated and at ease with mobility in social circles largely consisting of decrepit old rich people.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Click here for cast information.

Above: Richard Strauss


What the general public doesn’t understand is that this very same question has been debated for centuries within the realms of opera itself. The question of high-brow versus low-brow entertainment goes back at least to the creation of Italian opera buffa, which dates from the Enlightenment. The comic, and consequently unflattering, portrayal of the aristocracy which has come to define opera buffa set the genre at odds with opera seria, which attempts to depict the aristocracy as noble human beings who tragically suffer for the good of the state. This binary, which epitomizes the adage that tragedy shows us our betters, while comedy scoffs at the misfortune of others, has defined opera ever since. However, by integrating operas buffa with opera seria, Richard Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, carried the tradition of opera buffa into the 20th century.

Dell ‘Arte Opera Ensemble’s recent production of this bubbling comedy should be commended for an all-around stylish performance which captures the wit and the lyricism of this work. The term “Mozartian” has been applied to other Strauss comedies like Die Liebe der Danae and Der Rosenkavalier; however, this assessment sometimes seems implausible simply because Strauss was working with an orchestra of Wagnerian force. An orchestra of this size was simply not available to Mozart. This explains my fear on seeing that the orchestra was considerably smaller than the normal forces required. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Conductor Christopher Fecteau struck a noteworthy balance between humor and aesthetics, bringing a classical precision to the trio of the nymphs in the opera proper was certainly reminiscent of Der Rosenkavalier.

Mezzo Sarah Heltzel was utterly compelling as the Composer (played by Juli Borst on August 18 and 20). The blind devotion to music as an art form that she injected into the character made the themes of the opera, the conflicts between what a composer wants to write and what his audience wants to see, more tangible than in Strauss’s last opera, Capriccio where the question that was debated was whether, when writing an opera, were words or music were more important. Like soprano Mary Ann Stewart, who played the prima donna, (who is played by Jane Shivick on August 18 and 20) the commitment that Heltzel brought to the role served as fodder for the contrast between their idealized view of art and the more realistic view of opera, as personified by the commedia dell’arte troupe and soprano Jennifer Moore, who played Zerbinetta (played by Jennifer Rossetti on August 18 and 20). Stewart sang warmly, yet when called for, she could also sing powerfully.

Jennifer Moore was delightfully girlish as Zerbinetta. Her portrayal strengthened the parallels between Strauss and Mozart, as her Zerbinetta could be a modern-day Zerlina or Despina. It should be said, however, that in the Prologue, despite her glorious high notes, the body of her voice was slightly heavier than other Zerbinettas, such as Elisabeth Schwartzkopf’s. That said, she could be lyrical when called for. More importantly, Act II was her time to shine. She clearly relished her showpiece; her cadenzas were simply stunning. At the same time, her singing highlighted the implied mockery of the proverbial bel canto scena, which coloraturas love to lose their minds to.

As the Dance Master, Edwin Vega (played by Andrew Klima on August 18 and 20) obviously had fun, and his light tenor was always a joy to hear. In the second act, he vocally outshone the other the singers in the commedia dell’arte troupe. That said, the troupe worked cohesively as a team and created immensely comical portrayals of each character throughout. The trio of the nymphs was in splendid vocal form as well. On the whole, the only rough spot in the second act was Shawn Thuris’s rendition of Bacchus, which was a little understated compared to that of his partners on stage. Even so, there were moments where his singing shone through.

Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble is one of a number of organizations, such as Wolf Trap Opera Company, that is dedicated to providing young singers with the tools they need to succeed in the extremely competitive world of opera. However, this company is still unique insofar as it performs in a Greenwich Village loft, allowing the audience to be quite literally feet away from the actors. I even had the honor of shaking hands with Zerbinetta. In this way, Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble provides an invaluable experience not only for its singers, but to its audiences as well.

Gregory Moomjy

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