Full disclosure: This was my very first opera (not just opera review, but first time seeing one) so take the following accordingly.
Inside the Opera host Robert Holliston’s excitement over Ariadne Auf Naxos, POV’s latest production, was both effusive and contagious as he gave his opening talk on the show itself, its music and its place in the Strauss canon.
Ariadne is a unique opera in several respects, but perhaps most in its unusual set-up and plot. The drama begins as a promising young composer, who is about to debut his first opera based on a Greek tragedy, discovers that he must share his stage time with a troupe of commedia dell’arte performers. Rather than a two-act affair, Ariadne is divided into a prologue, where the composer and his cast clash with the coquettish Zerbinetta and her players, followed by the opera of Ariadne Auf Naxos as it ensues from this strange collaboration.
Mezzo-soprano Armine Kassabian dominates the prologue with her amazing vocals and spot-on acting. Dazzling as the young composer, she displayed incredible power and precision – her voice could push an audience against the backs of their seats. Regrettably, she doesn’t appear post-intermission.
Carrying the soprano side of things into the second half are Suzanne Rigden (Zerbinetta) and Colleen Skull (the Prima Donna performing as Ariadne). Rigden performs some amazing vocal stunts, including a very challenging aria, and does her finest work when she and her troupe take over the stage.
Skull plays the diva opera star in the prologue and the forlorn Ariadne equally well, and brings whispers of her prima donna character into her performance in the opera within the opera. Overwhelming rich, her singing is very evocative and captures the pain of her abandoned heroine. The nymphs that surround Ariadne (Virginia Hatfield, Eve-lyn de la Haye and Aidan Ferguson) harmonize beautifully yet each of their voices is distinctive.
Roger Honeywell tenor vocals are occasionally overwhelmed by Skull’s and the music from the orchestra, but he makes a very strong impression in the final moments of the show. Bruce Kelly proves a good choice for the beleagured music master who must negotiate a compromise with his young pupil and J. Patrick Rafferty brings the appropriate amount of snobbery to his role as the major Domo, which aids in the humour found in his lines. At moments, the dialogue in the prologue carries a stiffness that is lost once the words become song.
The commedia dell’arte troupe pulls off some impressive physical stunts and gags as they turn their talents towards cheering Ariadne and then charming Zerbinetta. The gentleman performers (Riccardo iannello, James McLennan, John Brancy and Neil Craighead) have a flair for comedy in addition to their vocal gifts. Tenor Joseph Schnurr makes a brief yet memorable appearance as The Dancing Master.
As an opera and a story, Ariadne brings several interesting elements together. Each ringleader seems to represent a different side or purpose within the arts. Zerbinetta reflects the desire to entertain and amuse while the young composer believes the value in arts is in their ability to evoke emotion and challenge the minds. The composer seeks to use his opera to pay tribute to an impossible ideal of womanhood, while Zerbinetta wants the story to reflect the reality of life.
The opera that emerges from their discussion reflects these clashes, as Ariadne is beset by Zerbinetta and her clownish compatriots and urged to lighten up and end her pointless mourning. Despite the comedic relief, the parts of the tragic opera left untouched don’t lack emotional resonance.
Costume designer Sheila White created some fantastic looks, particularly the colourful and modern outfits for comedic players and Zerbinetta (it makes for a very sharp contrast when men in plaid shirts appear in a scene filled with eroded pillars and classic Greek costumes). The opening set, featuring three separate dressing rooms (presented as detached rooms in a dollhouse fashion) is quirky yet functional, fitting for the behind-the-scenes drama.
It’s obvious that Artistic Director Timothy Vernon and Director Oriol Tomas had a specific vision in mind when they brought Ariadne to the POV stage and equally clear they were successful in bringing it to life in the most impressive way.
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