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Performances

Amber Wagner as Ariadne and Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus
23 Jan 2012

A Noteworthy Ariadne auf Naxos, Chicago

Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos presents challenges in casting not only because of the vocal line and identity associated with individual characters but also because of its nature as a self-comment on the musical stage and the requisite dramatic skills thus needed.

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Click here for cast and other production information.

Above: Amber Wagner as Ariadne and Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus

Photos by Dan Rest courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

 

Lyric Opera of Chicago succeeds in meeting these challenges on both accounts in its recent revival. The title role was sung by Amber Wagner, the Composer in the Prologue by Alice Coote, Zerbinetta by Anna Christy, and the god Bacchus by Brandon Jovanovich. Other roles showing strong performances include Eike Wilm Schulte as the Music Master, Matthew Worth (debut) as Harlekin, and Nili Riemer (debut), Jamie Barton, and Kiri Deonarine (debut) singing the three nymphs Naiad, Dryad, and Echo respectively. Sir Andrew Davis conducted the Lyric Opera Orchestra in a fluid and moving performance of Strauss’s score.

Ariadne_Chicago_2.gifAlice Coote as the Composer

During the instrumental prelude to the first part the audience is presented with preparations for a seventeenth-century production. Scaffolds, doorways to dressing rooms, props and primitive dramatic machinery clutter the stage in this self-reflective Prologue to the varieties of entertainment scheduled to follow. The performers of the evening run about their tasks until the first exchange of dialogue between the Music Master and the Major Domo of the palace. Eike Wilm Schulte’s fluency and projection of both spoken and sung German are exemplary as needed to steer a course of diplomacy between the Major Domo’s demands and the sensitivity of his pupil, the Composer. Schulte’s legato and attention to pitch in distended notes enhanced his desperation in trying to fulfill multiple roles. In the speaking role of the Major Domo David Holloway cut an appropriately pompous figure while relaying his maser’s whims in a bureaucratic monotone. When the Composer, visible in diligence at his desk from earlier in the Prologue, begins to react to news from the Music Master, Alice Coote’s voice blooms with passion and devotion to the musical art. Her wide range with a fluid transition from low to secure top notes was used skillfully to convey the Composer’s consternation and disbelief that his serious opera “Ariadne” was to be mixed with low comedy.

Ariadne_Chicago_11.pngAnna Christy as Zerbinetta with commedia dell’arte troupe

Phrases such as “Allmächtiger Gott” and “Nach meiner Oper ein lustiges Nachspiel!” [“Almighty God” “A humorous interlude after my opera!”] showed effective use of Coote’s dramatic sense of vocal transition. As the Prima Donna and Tenor for the opera plead the importance of their own roles, the Composer swirls in further controversy. Only after he learns that his opera must be performed simultaneously with the commedia, Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers, does attention focus primarily on the personalities of the Composer and Zerbinetta. Ms. Christy had portrayed a sprightly, playful figure until this point. Her own transformation into a counterpoint for the Composer is not only convincing dramatically, but it is also demonstrative of a vocally altered character. The Composer, in turn, declares that he would prefer to toss his precious score into the fire, detailed excitingly by Coote with ascending pitches on “Lieber ins Feuer.” During the ensuing duet both characters seem to lose their animosity, with the Composer’s interest clearly in acceleration. Although he continues to take himself seriously, Zerbinetta makes him see everything, as Coote declares urgently, “mit anderen Augen” [“with different eyes”]. During their interchange Davis provided excellent orchestral support with the woodwinds standing out especially in expressive lines parallel to those for the voice. Coote’s final aria, “Musik ist eine heilige Kunst,” [“music is a holy art”] was delivered as a heartfelt soliloquy with effectively held notes emphasizing the Composer’s sincere dedication to his art. When pulled out of this self-absorption by Zerbinetta’s whistle and calls to prepare her troupe, Coote ended the prologue with dramatic expressiveness on “frieren, verhungern, sterben” [“to freeze, to starve, to die”] as reactions to this unexpected forthcoming medley.

In the prelude to the opera proper Davis’s conducting brought out the rich, orchestral colors with horns balancing off the nicely integrated string playing. The three nymphs, who introduced the act with questions and repartee on Ariadne’s emotional and physical state, sang distinctly as a trio with vocal decorations blending fittingly. Ms. Wagner’s entrance began with solidly produced low notes followed by equally impressive and emotionally charged high pitches on “Mein Kopf ist leer” [“My mind is empty”]. Wagner’s dramatic approach to “Dies muß ich finden” [“I must find this”] prepared Ariadne’s personality for the aria “Es gibt ein Reich” [“There exists a kingdom”]. In this performance Ms. Wagner drew on her preceding vocal characterization and added moments such as a deep emphasis on “Totenreich” [“realm of death”] contrasting with an impressive high pitch on “Hermes, stiller Gott.” When she described being alone, “ganz allein,” with a touching piano, it further emphasized her brittle emotional state, since this followed on her dramatic rubato at “von meiner Höhle” [“from my cave”]. Her conclusion to the aria left an impression of her character’s yearning and incompleteness. Immediately after this piece Zerbinetta and her troupe dominate the stage but their attention is now focused on sympathy with Ariadne’s plight. Matthew Worth displayed an appropriate physicality as Harlekin while he sang an exquisite lyrical appeal to the inattentive Ariadne.

Ariadne_Chicago_9.pngScene from Ariadne auf Naxos

Of course one of the highlights of the operatic segment of Ariadne auf Naxos is Zerbinetta’s aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin,” in which the innermost feelings of the commedia performer answer the question, “Are we not both women?” Ms. Christy sang the challenging role with alternating glee and wistfulness: her voice is a comfortable fit for the many roulades and interpolated decorations. The effect taken on “treulos” [“faithless”] and trills executed just before “Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen” [“Every man approached me like a god”] were a tasteful and knowing cap on this splendid performance of the aria.

Once the nymphs announce the arrival of Bacchus [“Ein schönes Wunder (“A beautiful miracle”)], his cries of “Circe” from the distance match their excitement. From the start of his role Mr. Jovanovich was always on pitch with notes produced forte when dramatically needed and piano when expressing his appeals to Ariadne. His cries of “Circe” intensified without a hint of strain just as he sang diminuendo on “Zauberin” [“magical being”] when voicing his attraction. The final extended duet celebrating the love between Ariadne and Bacchus as performed by Wagner and Jovanovich was sufficiently moving to count as the “schönes Wunder” that the nymphs had anticipated.

Salvatore Calomino

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