Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss’s exploration of the universal in Ariadne auf Naxos was admirably staged by Boston Lyric Opera on Friday evening, March 12, at the Citi Performing Arts Center Schubert Theater. Opening night offered an energy-charged performance of this sometimes troublesome opera to an enthusiastic audience. It is no easy feat to deal with both a libretto and a score that call for symbiosis between high operatic art and commedia dell’arte antics. The BLO, in the North American premiere of the Welsh National Opera production, presented several brilliant lead roles with a strong ensemble cast.
The Prologue is one of the most interesting acts in opera, effectively presenting a pre-denouement before the “real” opera has even begun. The audience is given a backstage pass that invites them to view art in general in the same way: messy, conflicted, and reactionary. The effective “backstage” set, designed by Dale Ferguson, highlighted the “all the world’s a stage” moral of the opera itself. Tim Mitchell’s lighting design, particularly in the “Opera” portion (Act II), also underscored this sentiment—contrasting more burlesque footlights for the comedy troupe with grand opéra effects for Ariadne’s remote island. But what really made the message were the performances of mezzo-soprano Edyta Kulczak as the Composer, soprano Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, and Marjorie Owens as the tormented-then-transformed Ariadne. All three of these BLO debut performances were the most captivating of the evening. Kulczak’s inspired portrayal of the Composer balanced brilliant and expressive singing with a tremendous sensitivity to the character’s own passion and naiveté. It is easy to make the Composer an over-the-top, heart-on-the-sleeve “artiste,” but Kulczak delivered a much more nuanced and sympathetic interpretation.
Gilmore and Owens held court for the “Opera” portion, embodying both ends of the diva spectrum, with Gilmore’s coloratura acrobatics at one end, and Owens’ Wagnerian presence at the other. Gilmore’s performance as Zerbinetta was near impeccable, but she sometimes had to compete in the lower range with a rather strident tone from the strings. Like Kulczak, Gilmore also resisted the temptation to make Zerbinetta too much of a stock character, and this made her ultimate pragmatic truths resonate over her follies and antics. This is what makes Ariadne work as a whole. If the comedic troupe is too campy, or the opera cast drowns in melodrama, then what we get is a collision rather than the intended symbiosis. Marjorie Owens made the most of Ariadne’s stunning arias, easily negotiating the subtle switches between her portrayal of Ariadne and the Prima Donna. She was able to lose the Prima Donna from the Prologue gradually, so that by the end of the opera, she truly is the transformed Ariadne, channeling Isolde for her scene with Bacchus. This is an important facet of the opera, for it allows the Prologue and Opera to be part of the same narrative, rather than viewing the former as an explanatory note for the latter. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich gave a stirring performance as Bacchus, matched in Wagnerian weight with Owens’ Ariadne, but occasionally sacrificing too much for the sake of power.
The ensemble too, had some excellent moments. Joanna Mongiardo (Naiad), Andrea Coleman (Dryad), and Mara Bonde (Echo) shimmered together in their ensemble singing. Bonde, especially, shone in the challenging vocal restraint required by Echo. Jesse Blumberg’s Harlequin, like Gilmore’s Zerbinetta, managed to find that bizarre place between the ridiculous and the sublime that the opera demands. Through excellent diction and a measured portrayal, Blumberg brought forth a reality wherein clowns and princesses might chat over coffee.
Conductor Erik Nielsen aptly navigated the stylistic mélange of the score, giving an almost Stravinskian touch to some of the thinner orchestral sections. Neil Armfield’s staging and direction deserves much of the credit for the coherence of the production as a whole. BLO’S Ariadne auf Naxos succeeded with the innate challenges of an opera about an opera, and served as a showcase for exciting and inspiring vocal talent.