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Friday, August 19, 2011

Opera Review: Ariadne on E. 13th St.

dell'Arte Opera Ensemble takes Strauss downtown.
Creative Team: Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (l.) and Richard Strauss
Photo © 195 Archives of the Salzburg Festval.
Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos is set onstage and backstage at a private theater belonging to "The Richest Man in Vienna." On Thursday night, the Dell'Arte Opera ensemble mounted the opera in the Little 13th Street Theater as part of their 2011 Standard Repertory Project. Though the surroundings were less opulent, the magic of this unique opera came through.

A collaboration between Strauss and his frequent librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Ariadne juxtaposes a high-flown opera seria with a burlesque troupe. Thanks to the whims of their patron, the two theater groups are forced to share the stage, to "liven up" the desolate island of Naxos. The work straddles three centuries, fusing the comic writing of Mozart, the majesty of Wagner and Strauss' own particular genius for the theater.

As Ariadne, Jane Shivick displayed a powerful instrument that was almost too big for the tiny theater. Her best moment was the low note ("Totenreich!") in "Er gibt ein reich", though she sang majestically in the final scene with Bacchus. Kevin Courtemanche did well with Bacchus' murderous, high tessitura, an example of Strauss' unkind writing for the tenor voice.

The high-strung Composer dominates the Prologue. Juli Borst has good acting ability and a resonant mezzo, especially in "O der Esel! Die Freud'! Du allmächtiger Gott." But Ms. Borst's voice hardened under pressure, expressing panic at the backstage creative crisis. In a final touch, the Composer returned to gaze proudly at the united Bacchus and Ariadne. Also notable: a strong spoken performance from Erik Kramer as the Haushofmeister, and Jack White as the Music Master who tries to keep the Composer from flying off the handle.

Zerbinetta is the star of the aforementioned comedians, and one of the most challenging parts for a high coloratura soprano. Jennifer Rossetti met the challenges of the ten-minute "Grossmachtige Prinzessin", including the high F notes called for on the fioratura passages. More importantly, she imbued the part with an easy sexuality and had good chemistry with the four players in the troupe. Their following quintet was more than an anti-climax: it was a highlight of the show.

This is the favorite opera of dell'Arte music director Christopher Fecteau. Leading a stripped-down 11-piece band (with a synthesizer adding to the orchestra and providing the timpani) Mr. Fecteau brought out the wit and humor of the Prologue. His little band changed idioms repeatedly, accompanying the comedy troupe with grace, switching to sweeping and sweeping lyricism for the plight of the stranded princess. Best of all, the conductor became involved with the performance, occasionally meeting the eyes of a harlequin player appealing for help from the small pit. But even conductors cannot sway a princess or a Zerbinetta.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats