Summerfest’s 'Ariadne on Naxos' excels at operatic fun

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It’s hard to convey just how much fun, what an exhilarating theatrical experience is SummerFest’s “Ariadne on Naxos” at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland. Jonathan Eaton’s lively, resourceful staging and Brent McMunn’s expert musical direction of the 20-piece orchestra brings Richard Strauss’ all-too-rarely heard operatic masterpiece vividly to life. Opera Theater’s English-language production is an extraordinary accomplishment for a small company with limited financial and stage resources.

Originally composed as a single act inserted into Moliere’s comedy “Le bougeoise gentilhomme,” “Ariadne” took on a life of its own, with an operatic prologue to replace the spoken play. The premise is that a serious opera and a low comedy must be performed simultaneously, because of a scheduling error by the steward of a wealthy man’s lavish but disorganized household. It is also Strauss’ personal tribute to the art of music, and a spoof on the conventions and idiosyncrasies of opera: the haughty prima donna with her diva airs, the pretentious tenor who must sing at the top edge of his range, the coloratura soprano whose magnificent solo turn is a parody of old-fashioned bel canto, even a spoof on the composer himself, who takes his work too seriously.

Mr. Eaton discovered two singers for the leads – dramatic soprano Elizabeth Baldwin in the title role, and coloratura Elizabeth Fischborn as the comedienne Zerbinetta – either of whom would be an asset to any opera company in the world. Ms. Baldwin, who won first place in last year’s Mildred Miller competition, has an opulent sound, with solid top notes and a penetrating low, and she sings expressively to boot. She manages Ariadne’s long-breathed phrase about death setting her free, one of the most gorgeous moments in all music, with soaring line and beauty.

Ms. Fischborn is that rare phenomenon, a light soprano who combines agility in the altitudes with the fullness and heft of her heavier-voiced colleagues. And what a pro she is on stage: limber and flexible, sexy and funny, clearer in her diction than most singers of her vocal type, with a knack for making the individual viewer feel direct emotional contact.. All the while, she exudes the joy of singing without letting on how hard Zerbinetta’s music really is.

Not all the singers are on their level, but the others perform in tight ensemble to make Mr. Eaton’s intricate staging effective. Mezzo-soprano Erika Hennings credibly impersonates the adolescent male composer, and manages the vocal part adequately, though her mushy diction might as well be Urdu as English, and she misses the ecstatic glory inherent in her aria about music being “the holiest art.” Although this character is written only into the prologue, Mr. Eaton brings her back to perform silent shenanigans in the opera itself.

Robert Frankenberry is the wrong voice type and the wrong physical type for the god Bacchus, who rescues and seduces the heroine in the space of about 25 minutes. The role calls for a Wagnerian Heldentenor, but Mr. Frankenberry uses his light voice with intelligence, and mostly holds his own with the voluminous Ms. Baldwin. Ariadne’s trio of nymphs have music that can be excruciating if even one member goes out of tune, but here, Leigh Tomlinson, Amelia Jardon and Bethany Worrell sing in tandem quite beautifully. Zerbinetta’s entourage of male characters from Italian folk comedy – led by the resonant Harlequin of Benjamin Taylor – are appropriately lithe and funny. Among the gaggle of supporting characters who inhabit the prologue, young Belgian Pierre Dehret stands out for a promising tenor sound, and stage deportment to match.

The final performance of “Ariadne on Naxos” is 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $25-$75; festival passes also available. 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org.


Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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