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Music Triumphs

Lyric Opera
11/19/2011 -  & November 19*, 22, 28, December 2, 7, 11, 2011
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Amber Wagner (Ariadne) , Anna Christy (Zerbinetta), Nili Riemer (Naiad), Kiri Deonarine (Echo), Alice Coote (The Composer), Jamie Barton (Dryad), Brandon Jovanovich (Bacchus), Edward Mout (Dancing Master), Rene Barbera (Brighella), Matthew Worth (Harlequin), David Holloway (Major-Domo)

The Lyric Opera Orchestra, Sir Andrew Davis (Conductor)
John Cox (Director), Robert Perdziola (Set and Costume Designer), Duane Schuler (Lighting Designer)

A. Wagner & B. Janovich (© Dan Rest/LOC)

Opera fans who heard Deborah Voight in the Ring in New York in the spring, and also Amber Wagner as Elsa in Lohengrin at the Lyric were not disappointed when Voight stepped down from the role of Strauss’ Ariadne and Wagner stepped up. They were rewarded by the Wagner performance in Chicago on Saturday.

This opera, the third collaboration between Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a musical tribute to the power of love, but even more than the power of love between two people, Ariadne Auf Naxos is a tribute to the love of music shared by the composer of the opera, the composer on stage, and their audience. It is a lot of fun and also very serious.

Alice Coote, the brilliant mezzo soprano who comfortably ranges from top to bottom, brings an unusually warm and lush voice to this Strauss self portrait. Coote captures the poetry of the composer role, his disdain for worldly goods, his honest hunger and longing soul, worth more than riches. She moves with her music, a pleasure sustained throughout the evening by all the performers. John Cox’s stage direction honors the operatic form.

In the prologue where the opera is being prepared, the Major-Domo, senses that a tragic heroine abandoned on a desert island to await death’s arrival is not going to be sufficiently entertaining. He calls out the Harlequins, classic figures from opera buffa and also Zerbinetta, an attractive diseuse. Somewhere through the bustle and din of the comic performers, the frustrated composer hears a lovely tune, his heart’s own song. No longer does Zerbinetta charm. She is a cheap thrill, albeit sung with disarming bravura by the delightful Anna Christy.

While there is much humor in the vulgar stage players as the Prima Donna, sung by Wagner, brags about friends in high places and Jovanovich, swaddled in leopard as the tenor, insists on the best roles, the prospect of sharing the stage with ordinary Harlequins appalls these classicists.

John Cox perfectly captures the moxie and mayhem of the piece, while always honoring the music. So often today, in a desperate effort to gain audience share, general managers fall in the trap of trying to make opera into theater. The gears that move opera are different. Music, as Strauss so beautifully shows in Ariadne, is the driver. Because the marvelous singers at the Lyric inhabit their roles in which character and story are expressed as they sing and also move with the music to engage and disengage, the heart of the story of Ariadne is dramatically front and center, as it should be. There is no argument here, as there is in the story, that merging the opera and harlequins will make opera more accessible to the audience, even if it kills the composer’s soul. Music is without contest ascendant.

Christy takes on Zerbinetta with a lusty joy. Jovanovich as Bacchus, the rescuer, is handsome as all get out, but he faded at the finish. Amber Wagner is the news. Her dramatic soprano is lush and comfortable throughout her range. She has a large voice with magnificent control, which she uses to reveal character and conflict. The word has been that in Wagner a star is born. One is.

Strauss’ take on the Rhine Maidens opens the opera within the opera. As Naiad, Nili Riemer, a water nymph, offered welcoming advice to the beleaguered Ariadne. Kiri Deonarine sang Echo’s soulless rustle of the wind with a whispered beauty. Jamie Barton as Dryad, inhabiting trees as the soul inhabits the body, stood out with her booming and yet delicately nuanced mezzo.

There are two sets: a stage within a stage in the prologue, backstage at a wealthy man’s home as players prepare for performance. The cave on Naxos is one of the most apt and beautiful ever created for this opera. The ceiling and wall parts move; waves crash in the background, and slowly, ever so slowly, the backdrop is transformed into an opera house. Strauss was made an honorary citizen by the real island of Naxos and he would surely have loved this portrait of his honorary isle.

Sir Andrew Davis channeled Strauss. From the moment he lifted his baton, the Lyric Opera Orchestra captivated. When a subject as serious as the centrality of music in life is presented with such joy and passion, opera is at its height. The Lyric’s production of Ariadne is opera at its finest.

Susan Hall



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