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Fireworks for Ariadne

Kennedy Center Opera House
10/24/2009 -  & October 28, 31, November 2, 5, 8m, 10, 13, 2009
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Gidon Saks (Music Teacher), George Martin Bode (Major Domo), Grigory Soloviov (Lackey/Truffaldino), Nicholas Houhoulis (Officer), Kristine Jepson (The Composer), Corey Evan Rotz (Tenor/Bacchus), Aleksey Bogdanov (Wig Maker), Lyubov Petrova (Zerbinetta), Iréne Theorin (Prima Donna/Ariadne), Robert Baker (Dancing Master), Jennifer Lynn Waters (Naiad), Cynthia Hanna (Dryad), Emily Albrink (Echo), Nathan Herfindahl (Harlequin), Jason Karn (Scaramuccio), Greg Fedderly (Brighella)
Washington National Opera, Andreas Delfs (Conductor)
Chris Alexander (Director), Robert Dahlstrom (Set Designer), Cynthia Savage (Costume Designer), Jeff Harris (Lighting Designer)

G. Fedderly, J. Karn, I. Theorin, G. Soloviov, N. Herfindahl
(© Karin Cooper)

The current production of Ariadne auf Naxos by the Washington National Opera is as close to perfection as is ever achieved on the opera stage. It is by far the finest presentation of Ariadne I have ever seen, and it is certainly the best offering by WNO yet this season. It is enormously entertaining, and offers great singing, superb company ensemble, and brilliant stage direction. It even boasts a member of the U. S. Congress (Eleanor Holmes Norton) and a duo of Supreme Court Justices (Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg) appearing as supernumeraries in Act II.

Stage Director Chris Alexander is largely responsible for the success of the production.
The original action of the story takes place during the 18th century in the home of the richest man in Vienna. Mr. Alexander has updated it to modern times and has set it in the home of the wealthiest man in Washington. Let us imagine, perhaps, that it is set in the home of the late arts patron and millionaire David Lloyd Kreeger. You will then have the concept exactly. This revision works brilliantly, and it enables Mr. Alexander to drive home the fact of how dependant artists are on the kindness of benefactors, and how an artist’s work is often compromised by the whims of his patron. Herein lies the hilarious and philosophically probing story of Ariadne auf Naxos:
A composer has been commissioned to write a serious opera as an entertainment for dinner guests of a wealthy Washington patron. A few minutes before the opera is to begin, the major domo informs the composer that the opera performance will have to run concurrently with a clown show, and that both must be concluded by 9:00 p.m. sharp, when a display of fireworks is scheduled to go off. Any problems with that setup will have to be worked out by the opera troupe and the clowns among themselves explains the major domo as the composer begins to tear her hair out and the curtain begins to rise! This is a real recipe for major opera antics and the WNO did not disappoint. The opera-seria was wonderful, the clowns were hilarious, and fireworks capped the evening.
The audience was completely delighted, and rewarded the company with a well-deserved standing ovation.

Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson was fabulous in the “trouser role” of the Composer.
Her voice is rich and beautiful. She sang the high and daunting tessitura of her final aria effortlessly, and, no pun intended, she acted the pants off the role. She was both comic and pathetic in conveying her frustration with the performance situation forced upon her.

The unrivaled star of the evening however was the superb Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin as the tempestuous prima donna who assumes the love-lorn role of Ariadne. Her singing was highly refined for a dramatic soprano, and her intonation was impeccable. She revealed facets of her artistry that were not called upon in her last season’s appearance in Siegfried as Brünnhilde. She often colored her many long phrases with an exquisite use of piano and pianissimo. She also gave voice to many full-throttled and clarion high notes that were simply glorious. The top B flat she sang at the end of her monologue “Es gibt ein reich” (There is a land) was absolutely thrilling as it rang in the rafters of the opera house. I cannot image a finer soprano as Ariadne. She has everything vocally that the role demands, and then some.

Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova was enormously entertaining and convincing as Zerbinetta, the leader of the commedia dell’arte buffoons. Zerbinetta simply cannot understand how Ariadne could pine-away for any man when there are so many others in the world to choose from. She sang her long and treacherous coloratura aria “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” (Great and powerful princess), in which she explains her philosophy on men, lounging around and standing on top of a large concert grand piano. It wowed the audience, as that aria usually does, and she received the only show-stopping applause of the evening. She did miss a lot notes however, and her voice was as hard as nails, which is typical of Russian coloraturas, especially on the top. She waited a good five seconds before she attempted the final high E flat, but she nailed it (pun intended), and the audience rewarded her with a long ovation.

Tenor Corey Evan Rotz was a last minute replacement for Par Lindskog in the dual role of the Tenor and Bacchus. He was a bit over-parted as Mr. Rotz does not have the heroic tenor voice that the role calls for. However, he did an admirable job, and he must be heartily thanked for saving the show.

Nathan Herfindahl, Jason Karn, Greg Fedderly, and Grigory Soloviov were hilarious as Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Brighella, and Truffaldino, the quartet of Zerbinetta’s clowns.
Mr. Soloviov was particularly imposing in his enormous hat, singing with an enormous bass voice. His ballerina mimes were hysterical.

Surrounding Aridne as Naiad, Dryad, and Echo were Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna, and Emily Albrink. Strauss wrote some very lovely music for this trio of nymphs and graces, and these lovely ladies sang the music with charm and beauty. Their moments onstage, albeit brief, were magical.

All of the other various parts were exceptionally well executed and speaks volumes about the excellent ensemble company the WNO has become in recent years under the scrutiny of General Director Placido Domingo and Director of Artistic Operations Christina Scheppelmann. With the success of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program the company is able to draw from a stable of well-trained emerging artists for many of the roles, or as in the case of Corey Evan Rotz, promote one to a major role to cover the “demise” of a scheduled principal artist.

A few final words must be said about the excellent and stylish conducting of Maestro Andreas Delfs. He was most sensitive in his support of the singers. Even in Richard Strauss’s reduced scoring for chamber orchestra, the texture can be quite “Wagnerian” at certain moments. Maestro Delfs never let the orchestra overwhelm the singers. It was particularly notable the way he held the horns at bay in Ariadne’s first monologue. The horns could have easily covered the delicate softness of some of her phrases, but instead they matched her artistry in muted tones. Maestro Delfs’ pacing was excellent and his tempi always felt just right.

If you are in Washington during this run of Ariadne auf Naxos you will want to attend one of these delightful performances. You may find it, as I did, one of the best you will ever see.

Micaele Sparacino



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