Freshly minted “Ariadne” at Tanglewood captures Strauss’s wit and energy

August 03, 2010
By Lawrence Budmen

Ta'u Pupu'a and Emalie Savoy in "Ariadne auf Naxos" at Tanglewood. Photo: Hilary Scott

The Tanglewood Music Center production of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, presented Monday night, was a revelatory, freshly minted conception of one of the most glorious yet problematic works in the repertoire.

Working in the intimate Tanglewood Theater in Lenox, Massachusetts (built originally in 1946 for the American premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes), conductor Christoph von Dohnanyi and director Ira Siff guided a cast of talented young singers in a performance that captured the bristling energy and wit of this one-of-a-kind operatic pastiche.

The Prologue is set in the mansion of the richest man in 18th century Vienna who has commissioned a young composer to write an operatic drama. He has also engaged a comedy troupe to perform at his festivities. When it is discovered that there is insufficient time for both performances prior to a fireworks display, the artists are commanded to present their entertainments simultaneously, integrating comedy and tragedy to the consternation of creators and performers alike. The second part is the actual performance. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal address issues of the indignities visited upon creative artists and the need for the sublime and ridiculous to peacefully coexist. They also conceived a vivacious entertainment, replete with sensuous romantic music worthy of Wagner and fast paced Italian commedia dell’ arte repartee, a curious hybrid indeed.

Siff and designer Eduardo Santiago have given the Prologue a modern backstage theatrical setting. In the best tradition of French farce, doors open and close in rapid succession as characters voice scene-stealing one-liners. The opera is presented in a Classical setting, a striking fresco and sculptures adorning the stage. As Ariadne and the god Bacchus depart in a ship at the opera’s conclusion, fireworks are projected against the scenic backdrop.

Siff treats the coquettish Zerbinetta and her comedy troupe as vaudevillians, the men even dressed as the Marx Brothers during one sequence, beach ball in tow. The director sends up the anguish of the dejected Ariadne. Yet the production never confuses fun with exaggeration, and the rapid-fire sight gags never obscure the incandescent beauty of Strauss’ music.

Cecelia Hall was a mixed blessing as the Composer. Her lustrous mezzo timbre was compromised by a pinched, strident upper register and hyperactive stage demeanor. Emalie Savoy was a hilarious Prima Donna in the Prologue and a statuesque, Grecian Ariadne. In a role often sung in full-throated Wagnerian fashion, Savoy unfurled a luminous vocal palette, reveling in the score’s flights of lyrical arioso. Here was an Ariadne more in the tradition of Eleanor Steber than Deborah Voigt and all the better for it.

Audrey Elizabeth Luna sang Zerbinetta with spunk and aplomb in a voice more soubrette than budding Lucia. Through sheer personality, musical accuracy and force of will, she conquered Zerbinetta’s fourteen-minute showpiece. In the treacherous heldentenor role of Bacchus, Ta’u Pupu’a brought reserves of stentorian power and heroic strength, singing gloriously. Standouts in a generally strong supporting cast included the characterful tenor Patrick Jang as the Dancing Master and sonorous baritone Elliot Madore as a gruff Music Master and enchanting Harlequin. The three nymphs voiced their ethereal music at top volume with attendant loss of atmosphere and magic.

Substituting for James Levine who is recovering from back surgery, Dohnanyi led a lean, tautly paced performance that emphasized the music’s Mozartean transparency rather than overblown romanticism. He drew high-voltage, brilliant playing from a thirty-eight piece student orchestra (with a few guest players including former Met concertmaster Raymond Gniewek).

Ariadne auf Naxos will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. 888-266-1200,

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