Palm Beach Opera is concluding its current season with Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. This opening night featured an exceptionally strong cast that sang and acted brilliantly under Daniel Witzke’s able direction while Andreas Delfs led a luminous account of the score.
Although overshadowed by Der Rosenkavalier (the immediately preceding collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal), Ariadne more than holds its own as a delightful admixture of the tragic and the comic, a juxtaposition of contradictory elements that lies at the heart of the plot, in both the ‘Prologue’ and the succeeding ‘Opera’.
In the former, a Viennese nobleman dictates that a commedia dell’arte troupe performs simultaneously with the opera seria Ariadne auf Naxos that he has commissioned for after-dinner entertainment, in order to allow a fireworks display to begin on time. Backstage intrigues and jealousies abound among the Music Master, the Composer, the singers, and even the Wigmaker, and there is fierce rivalry generally. The Composer is distraught at the patron’s outrageous demands, and even Zerbinetta’s flirtatious efforts to charm him fail to prevent his anger from erupting.
The ‘Opera’ opens with the Cretan princess Ariadne despondent and longing for death after being abandoned on Naxos by Theseus, whom she had helped to slay the Minotaur. The attempts of the comedy players to cheer up Ariadne with a serenade by Harlekin, some slapstick, and Zerbinetta’s advice to the lovelorn are in vain. It is only the young demigod Bacchus (Dionysus in the Greek myth) that finally gives Ariadne the will to live – and love.
The action in the ‘Prologue’ is largely focused on four characters that do not feature in the ‘Opera’. Irene Roberts was marvelous as the Composer, carrying off this trouser-role in credible fashion and singing beautifully to express a wide range of emotions as he conceives and develops his stage-work, tries to placate disgruntled singers, engages in a duet with Zerbinetta, and sings a hymn to the sacred art of music – only to be shocked back to harsh reality when she calls her fellow-humorists to the stage. Mark Schnaible was outstanding as the beleaguered Music Master as he tries to calm his protégé and contend with the increasingly distasteful conditions imposed by the Majordomo, a speaking role taken with crystal-clear diction and flair by Anthony Laciura. John Easterlin was appropriately nimble as the Dancing Master, meeting the vocal challenges quite capably.
During the Overture to the ‘Opera’, the nobleman’s guests – and the Composer – are shown to boxes on either side of the stage. Three nymphs attend Ariadne, lamenting her fate in somber tones. The mood of the music keeps changing as the plot of the opera-within-an-opera shifts. When the comedians arrive, they try to brighten Ariadne’s mood. Harlekin serenades her, his sweet phrases wordlessly repeated by, appropriately enough, Echo, but they make no impression.
The middle portion of the ‘Opera’ features monologues from Ariadne and by Zerbinetta, with hi-jinks in between. The princess’s longing for the salvation that will come only in the land of death was superbly sung by Wendy Bryn Harmer, her voice both lyrical and powerful as she expressed despair and hope. Ariadne’s solemnity persists and she withdraws into her cave as Zerbinetta offers woman-to-woman advice in her brilliant recitative and aria ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin!’. Don't worry about being abandoned, she counsels, for all men are faithless; another will come along soon and captivate you. The men of the troupe compete for Zerbinetta’s affections, Harlekin winning, but she remains attracted to the Composer.
Fanfares herald the return of the nymphs, who announce the approach of Bacchus’s ship, recounting his escape from the sorceress Circe. Bacchus appears on his ship high above the stage. Ariadne mistakes him for Theseus and then as a welcome messenger of death. Bacchus is at once enamored of Ariadne and he would sooner see the stars disappear than give her up. Heldentenor Brian Jagde was thrilling in this devilishly difficult role and in the love duet. When Zerbinetta returns to point out that her advice to Ariadne had proven sound, Witzke has her slowly approach the Composer, who rises to face her as the work reaches its rapturous conclusion.
Delfs and the (specified) 36-member orchestra ably complemented the singers, keyboard instruments identifying certain characters and events. Timothy Cheung’s piano figures nimbly accompanied Zerbinetta and the Dancing Master; Carina Inoue on celesta added sparkle to the Composer’s hymn and then set-off Bacchus; and in the ‘Prologue’ Lisa Leonard’s harmonium punctuated allusions to the ‘Opera’ to come and later harmonized Ariadne’s lamentations.
A talented group of young singers from Palm Beach Opera’s Benenson Young Artist program sang excellently in comprimario roles. The cast also included two former Young Artists – Roberts and Stavert – in lead roles. Sets and costumes were both attractive and effective.