Sunday, February 23, 2014

Review: 'Ariadne auf Naxos'

Virginia Opera
Adam Turner conducting
Feb. 21, Richmond CenterStage

“Ariadne auf Naxos,” the comic opera that Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannstahl produced as a follow-up to their greatest hit, “Der Rosenkavalier,” is a show-within-a-show that almost inevitably comes across as two shows, and wildly mismatched ones at that. But, then, mismatch is the crux of this creation.

A wealthy parvenu’s lavish dinner party is to be followed by a mythological opera, and then comic turns by a commedia dell’arte troupe. (Oh, and fireworks.) The evening is running a bit long, so the master decides to have the tragedy of Ariadne, abandoned by Thesus to pine her life away on a desert island, performed simultaneously with the comic cavorting.

Act 1 is the backstage set-up for this theatrical train wreck – much wailing and drama queenery from the outraged composer and his opera singers, with sneering and giggling counterpoint from the rowdy show folk. Act 2 gives us the preposterous results onstage.

Virginia Opera’s current production, designed by Andrew Lieberman and directed by Sam Helfrich, dispenses with much of the subtle give-and-take of Hofmannstahl’s text and takes its broadly humorous cues from Strauss’ colorful score. This show kits out the comic players as if they were a grunge-rock band, then gives them quasi-Busby Berkeley dance routines. Ariadne’s desert island is represented by a sleep sofa and tilted floor lamp with potted palms. These and other touches garnish the surreality of the story with visual dada.

The contrast between the two acts is underlined by the decision to stage Act 1 in English and Act 2 in German.

At strategic points in both acts, Strauss injects the kind of nobly wistful, long-lined melodies that made “Rosenkavalier” so well-loved. In Act 2, there are several fine samples of this composer’s distinctive writing for multiple female voices (at least one of which also serves as a keen parody of Wagner).

These scenes are the highlights of this show, thanks to the voices of Christina Pier (as the diva singing Ariadne), Audrey Luna (Zerbinetta, star of the comic troupe) and Stephanie Lauricella (the composer). Pier and Lauricella have the warm, hefty, soulful Strauss style well in hand. Luna sets off the needed sparks dashes with her coloratura vocalizing, and adds flesh and blood to her character’s show-girl persona.

Amanda Opuszynski, Courtney Miller and Jessica Julin are in fine voice, individually and collectively, as the trio of nymphs who hover around (and psychoanalyze) Ariadne.

In the most prominent male role, Ric Furman (Bacchus) nicely contrasts the boy-toy tenor offstage character with the soulful rescuer of Ariadne in the opera. Edwin Vega exudes sly good cheer as the Dancing Master. Jake Gardner (the Music Teacher) and Mike Schaeffer (the Major Domo) sing straightforwardly and act broadly, not inappropriately for these characters.

Virginia Opera generally draws on the Virginia Symphony or Richmond Symphony for its pit orchestra. As both are giving concerts this weekend, a group billed as the Bel’ Aria Ensemble, whose roster includes Karen Johnson, former concertmaster of the Richmond Symphony, and several other members of the orchestra, performs on these Richmond “Ariadne” dates. Adam Turner, Virginia Opera’s resident conductor, takes over from Garrett Keast, who led earlier performances in Norfolk and Fairfax.

In the first of two Richmond performances, Turner was a steady, attentive musical director. The orchestra sounded rather thin, especially in the strings, but also well-attuned to Strauss’ orchestral voice.

Virginia Opera’s run of “Ariadne auf Naxos” concludes with a performance at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 23 in the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage. Tickets: $29-$111. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);