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A youthful Ariadne auf Naxos

MacMillan Theatre
08/14/2008 -  and 15, 16, 17 August
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Melinda Delorme (Ariadne), Désirée Till (Zerbinetta), Steven Sherwood (Bacchus), Erica Iris Huang (The Composer), Stephen Bell (Dance Master/Brighella), Titus Hollweg (Major-Domo), Gene Wu (Music Master), Neil Aronoff (Harlequin), Christopher Enns (Scaramuccio), David English (Truffaldino), James Baldwin (Wigmaker/Lackey), Anna Bateman (Najade), Ada Balon (Echo), Laura MaAlpine (Dryade)
National Academy Orchestra, Agnes Grossman (Conductor)
Titus Hollweg (Director), Fred Puruzza (Set and Lighting Designer), Lisa Magill (Head of Wardrobe)

D. Till (Zerbinetta), S. Bell (Brighella), N. Aronoff (Harlequin) (© Shelagh Howard)

The opera chosen for the third annual Toronto Summer Music Festival, Ariadne auf Naxos, is an ambitious one, considering that the cast consists of a mix of young professionals and students who are performing the roles for the first time. The venue is the 900-seat MacMillan Theatre at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, the location of the work’s Canadian premiere back in the 1960s. (At the time the Strauss work was considered too outré for the local professional company’s subscription audience. But now there is an hour-long version of the work that is being taken by the Canadian Opera Company into Toronto schools to be performed for - and with - children age nine to twelve. How times have changed!)

The setting is not the house of the richest man in Vienna, but the sun-filled lobby of the Lonely Island Resort, and everyone is in 1920s high-style beachwear. The Major-Domo is the desk clerk and Titus Hollweg (also director of the production) plays him not with the usual heavy pomposity but with youthful mischief. Mr Hollweg is the son of the late tenor, Werner Hollweg, and after hearing his exuberant speaking voice in this role I would very much like to hear him sing.

The prologue is dominated by the Composer, and Erica Iris Huang gives us a winning portrayal of an impetuous boy. Also a stand-out in this act is Stephen Bell as the Dance Master; here is a voice with a friendly, youthful sound, although it disappears at certain moments.

The opera proper opens on the same scene, but the resort seems to have been seized with decay. Ariadne sits disconsolately like Miss Havisham in her bridal gown beside her neglected wedding cake. Humour is by no means restricted to the jackanapes of the commedia dell’arte players and an example of this is Ariadne’s disconcerted reaction to hearing Echo repeat some of her notes. A few months ago Melinda Delorme was Berta in the Canadian Opera Company’s Barbiere and it’s a big leap from that role to this one. Understandably, her Ariadne is a work in progress - but progress there is.

Ariadne must share the opera with the other soprano, Zerbinetta, and here is another promising young voice and personality, Désirée Till. She is from Zurich and is in Canada to study at the University of Montreal. She has the notes for his freakish role but (understandably) needs more confidence-building performance exposure.

Bacchus is relentlessly lampooned in this production, much as one might expect in Offenbach’s treatment of the ancient gods in Orphée aux Enfers. He enters riding the prow of a huge white yacht and stands behind a cut-out figure of a ship’s captain in sparkling whites. When he steps out from behind the cut-out he is in a black suit with a heroic molded breastplate under the jacket. Bacchus’s initial lines are sung off-stage and Steven Sherwood unfortunately sounds far too distant. Even on stage his voice has a tendency to lose volume at some moments. He avoids blasting out notes (the major pitfall in this cruel role) and works successfully to maintain a line. It could be that he will never grow into this role; it is some consolation that few tenors do.

The arrival of the ship is an audience-delighting coup de théâtre. Its name is the Dewine, one of the director’s sillier ideas but in keeping with his light-hearted treatment of the work.

The four male comedians are given some zany near-choreographic moves to execute, which they do with some panache if with bit of self-consciousness. They sound fine as a group. The three nymphs sound very beautiful - as their music always does. Here is where Strauss wrote absolutely fail-safe music, even if the announcement of the arrival of Bacchus sounds more like a lullaby.

At the end we see the fireworks promised in the prologue, as well as a satisfying liaison being struck between Zerbinetta and her latest flame, the Composer.

No costume designer is credited, but Lisa Magill is listed as “head of wardrobe”. I presume this means she made choices from an available supply of costumes and if this is so, her choices are very astute. Fred Peruzza’s striking set could easily grace the stage of a much larger theatre.

The 36-member National Academy Orchestra is a summer training group (dating from 1989) based in nearby Hamilton and it sounds thoroughly proficient under the attentive conducting of Agnes Grossman.

There is a lot of operatic ambition looking for places to land, not only in Toronto but throughout Canada (the two casts for this production come from across the country), and here is a worthy outlet for at least some of it. Agnes Grossman and her team are to be congratulated for conjuring up this festival and for so carefully preparing this demanding work.

Michael Johnson



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