ARIADNE AUF NAXOS (Curtis Opera Theatre/Opera Philadelphia): Clowns and opera collide

Republished from NealsPaper with kind permission.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS predates Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” and David Hirson’s “La Bête” by decades, but the situation its plot depicts brings both of those later 20th century works to mind.

The prologue of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera is set in a green room of sorts next to a grand ballroom where a wealthy Viennese potentate is about to hold a lavish dinner for dozens of guests. To amuse his friends, the man has booked two entertainments. One is an opera about Ariadne, a princess abandoned on the Mediterranean island of Naxos by her love, Theseus, for whom she pines. The other is a burlesque that may have some structure but is generally improvised on the spot by the zesty Zerbinetta and her antic troupe of clowns, named Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Brighella, and Truffaldin after the comic archetypes in commedia dell’arte.

ariadne2008A debate ensues about whether the serious opera should precede the opera buffo or vice versa, but the host has decided that doing the opera and comedy in sequence would take too long. The entertainments will be presented simultaneously, the comics finding ways to insinuate themselves into the distraught composer’s intense operatic drama, on which he’s labored for years and wants more time to refine. The classical artists, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal, have demonstrated that older-style works must make some way for the new and less formal to be heard while even the comic avant-garde must respect the conventions of the traditional and serious. Art of different kinds from different perspectives can exist side by side. It is possible to enjoy Mozart and Radiohead? Tony Bennett, meet Lady Gaga.

Chas Rader-Schieber’s is a good solid production of ARIADNE AUF NAXOS that features high points with the frenzy backstage during the prologue and Ashley Milanese’s masterful performance of Zerbinetta’s show-stopping aria. The director had many fine ideas a number of people — Roy Hage, Sean Plumb, Vartan Gabrielian, and the four dell’arte clowns (Johnanthan McCullough, Mingjie Lei, Jean-Michel Richer, and Thomas Shivone) — made into entertaining personal vignettes. Among the voices heard mostly in harmony, Kirsten MacKinnon’s stood out for its purity and expressiveness.

Jacob A. Climer had obvious fun costuming this production, going from well-tailored suits to white dresses to the corner-boy get-ups. David Zinn’s green room set gives Rader-Schieber ample playing spaces while looking cluttered and frantic. His Naxos beach is expressionistic, with a black-and-white picture of a wavy ocean serving interestingly as the water and a large model of a shark-like fish trapped in a just-large-enough aquarium to add to the Mediterranean coast. Mike Inwood”s lighting often guides your eyes so you turn at the opportune time to see the dell’arte bunch approaching.

George Manahan conducted a Curtis Symphony Orchestra that gave depth to Strauss’s score, which has early 20th century overtones mixed with more traditional passages. Read the full review >>. [Perelman Theatre, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Broad and Spruce Streets] March 4-8, 2015;

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