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On the beach with Ariadne & Ginger

Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center
03/04/2015 -  & March 6, 8, 2015
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, opus 60
Heather Stebbins (PrimaDonna/Ariadne), Kevin Ray (Bacchus), Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta), Lauren Eberwein (Composer), Sean Plumb (Music Teacher), Roy Hage (Dance Master), Johnathan McCullough (Harlekin), Mingjie Lei (Birghella), Jean-Michel Richer (Scaramuccio), Thomas Shivone (Truffaldin), Elena Perroni (Najade), Anastasiia Sidorova (Dryade), Kirsten MacKinnon (Echo), Dogukan Kuran (Wigmaker), Vartan Gabrielian (Lackey), Evan Johnson (Officer), Dennis Chmelensky (Major-domo)
Curtis Symphony Orchestra, George Manahan (conductor)
Chas Rader-Shieber (director), David Sinn (set design), Jacob A. Climer (costume design), Mike Inwood (lighting design)

(© Cory Weaver)

Richard Strauss’ Adriane auf Naxos is an intoxicating sea of gorgeous music that moves from bouffe camp to metaphysical musical realms, narrated by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s poetic and witty text. Opera Philadelphia and the Curtis Opera Theatre-Curtis Symphony Orchestra has scaled it down for their chamber opera Aurora Series in the Perelman Theater and it is a good fit, mostly sublime, even if sometimes cloyingly ridiculous.

The comedy and tragedy masks come off as an opera troupe is performing the Greek myth of Ariadne for the ‘richest man in Vienna’. But also on the bill is a roving commedia dell’arte troupe performing low-brow fare, starring the gorgeous showgirl Zerbinetta. The patron instructs them to perform onstage together. Backstage mayhem ensues as the composer has a meltdown, the play director and dance masters are sniping at each other. The prima donna seethes in her silk kimono with and hooded diva eyes, while Zerbinetta, prances around hooker stockings and club boots, ready for anything.

Act II is the arresting tragedy of Ariadne on the rocky beaches of Naxos, abandoned by her lover Theseus, in a mournful Vera Wang(esque) wedding dress and avian headdress. Three nymphs, in pale goth make-up and Cher-length tresses, are her Greek chorus. They move over a large canvas of a sea, which is used to great effect. Ariadne sings her tale and it is a sad one, and the fact that the comics show up as the cast of Gilligan’s Island distracts to say the least. Zerbinetta, dressed in a Ginger glamour wrap, entreats Adriane to get over the jilted lover bit and start testing out new men. She couldn’t be more explicit about how many ‘gods’ had transformed her.

Stage director Chas Rader-Shieber keeps everything in motion in Act I, with the cast delivering sharp comic timing skills, not to mention a range of great singing. The full dramatic scenes of Ariadne auf Naxos, in contrast, Rader-Shieber keeps very still - the better to frame the towering vocals.

Dennis Chmelensky does a hilariously pitched speaking role as the flyboy efficient Master-domo (he’s dressed in tight chinos and cresting hair for his date with Stefan at the club). Roy Hage, the dance-master always smoking, has a huge sneering baritone that is just short of being a scene-stealer. The quartet of supporting men roles, all sung very well, are ultimately sabotaged by the Gilligan shtick, anonymous surfer dudes would have worked better. As Bacchus, Kevin Ray, soldiered on but struggled to vault those high notes.

Mezzo Lauren Eberwein as the male Composer, a little stubble sprouted for creative angst, would rather die than sully his opera with a comic troupe. Eberwein’s passionate performance brings both comic and tragic vocal dimension and is the first of three triumphal performances by the lead women. Ashley Milanese’s Zerbinetta, is at first shallow, but proves there is much more to her, vocally and otherwise. All of her vocal fireworks come into play in Act II, especially during those orgiastic scales that she surfs for ten minutes. Heather Stebbens’ Ariadne is transcendent vocally, as searing as Strauss’ Elektra, the articulation of emotion, the incredible sustaining technique required truly memorable. Her nymphs - Najade, Dryade, and Echo - sung by Elena Perroini, Anastasiia Sidorova and Kirsten MacKinnon, are equally mesmerizing.

The scenic design by David Zinn of neutral industrial walls, with multi-color tubes and earthy panels morphs ingeniously and keeps giving (except for one island cart that rolls). Conductor George Manahan brought precision to CSO that fully illuminated this score in a chamber grandeur. Among the outstanding soloists, lead violinist Jung Min Choi and pianist Susan Nowicki.

Lewis Whittington



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