Feeling urgency not to bury the lede, we urge readers up front not to miss Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos which opened last evening at the Colonial Theater in Pittsfield, and continues on Tuesday August 26th and the Friday of this coming Labor Day weekend. This reviewer witnessed an extraordinarily fine performance of an ebullient masterpiece.
Now look: all of you Berkshire denizens nestled in aerie or burrow, all you protesting Serious Love of music or opera (and you know who you are, lounging around Tanglewood at your déjeuner sur l’herbe); you students or aficionados of stagecraft and showmanship; you all, convinced that Opera is that preposterous medium so delightfully lampooned by the Marx Brothers, but still possessing an open mind (currently an endangered species; Berkshire Opera Festival wants to have you, and that needn’t worry you. So go!
The genesis Ariadne auf Naxos provides an amusing if cautionary tale about the dangers of granting Creative Genius unfettered latitude. Suffice it to say that Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the distinguished poet and librettist (but for the sake of broadening opera’s appeal, let’s say “Hofmannsthal–book and lyrics”) convinced Strauss to collaborate in a purported theatrical confection. The idea was to combine Hofmannsthal’s rendering of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (Molière) with an original pocket opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. Not even Max Reinhardt could save what was intended as a piquant delicacy. In the event, the play/mini opera combo lasted over six hours! And adjudged neither fish nor fowl, it gloriously bombed (1912). In 1916 they jettisoned Molière and substituted a theatrical backstage prologue.
Ariadne, no doubt in part because of a perilous birth and awkward childhood, remained one of Richard Strauss’s favorite children. But with justification as well, as it finds the composer at his most elegant, witty, and lyrical. Richard Strauss in general (and Ariadne in particular) places high demands on both orchestral player and singer. In addition, we were advised that the orchestra would be onstage. So, we fairly dreaded a semi-staged or concert presentation.
Also, knowing the orchestral resources Strauss usually deploys in his theatrical writing, we doubted Ariadne could fall within the competence of Berkshire Opera Festival, plucky and ambitious organization though it be.
However on reviewing the score, we realized that Strauss actually stuck to Hofmannsthal’s intention of producing a chamber or pocket opera, that is, an exquisite (albeit Germanic-scale) miniature. In fact, Music Director (and conductor) Brian Garman chose the original orchestration, which has a full woodwind component, only four brass, and a very modest string section, starting with only six violins, and scaling down proportionately to the basses. Since this piece is usually done in major houses with massed strings, it was fascinating to hear Strauss’s original intent. It is truly a charming, brilliant chamber orchestration.
Why then the orchestra on stage? The problem is: while the work is intended for jewel box theaters (such as the Colonial) with its modest orchestral contingent ; that “modest contingent” includes a piano, a harmonium, a celesta (all keyboards), two harps, and a robust percussion kitchen. The orchestra pit is no designer stretch jean. Hence the decision to place the orchestra stage.
The exceptional competence of this production deserves longer than the usual shrift, with credit due, we believe, to Jonathan Loy (President and Founding General Director, BOF). For example, for the prologue backstage, we were confronted with the orchestra stage right, and a play area of two thirds of the stage (to stage left). The naked back brick wall, flies, cables and all the backstage machinery were visible, quite appropriately, as this is set during frantic last-minute preparations for an imagined show. The characters in various stages of déshabillé, bumped right up to what one imagines as the cramped manic raunchiness of a Las Vegas dressing room.
The subsequent opera proper “Ariadne auf Naxos”, begin in a small but delicious coup de théâtre. With economy of means, against the former bare bricks, we found a colorful backdrop for Ariadne’s cave and a framing lattice arch descending from the flies, downstage. Incidentally, the design is strikingly evocative of the original designs of Ernst Stein. We attribute this allusion to historical literacy, not chance. A fine point to the coup, and emblematic of the subtle touches introduced by Loy, the conductor hitherto in a comfortable, rumpled flowery rehearsal shirt, is now in a smart black Nehru jacket. Nice. The performers who, backstage in the prologue, wore nothing but boxer shorts up to bohemian street tatters, now are transformed by gorgeous 18th-century costumes and wigs. Kudos here also to scenic designer Steven Dobay and costume designer Charles Caine.
All the magic of brilliant, intelligent stagecraft, and all the magic of children’s basement theater draped in sheets, transformed this realm (in their innocent minds) into Kingdoms of Fantasy.
Opera staging has been subjected to such idiocies of late, that intelligence and perspicacity must be credited when due. We’re not quite sure how this was achieved, but all the singers, clearly opera types, evidenced meticulous trained in stage movement. The gyrations and acrobatics of the commedia dell’arte troop astonished. The director devised endless, intricate blocking and “business” (showbiz talk) to match the music’s complex wit or noble pathos.
Amusing subtitles conveyed the sense and humor of the original text, without mangling into some anachronistic ideological sermonette.
So, combine the genius of the music, the wit of the book, and the mastery of production and performance, this was entertainment of the first water.
As to the musicians: Maestro Garman led the “chamber” ensemble with a sensible, conventional baton technique, drawing out all Strauss’s elegance and subtlety.
The large, core, woodwind ensemble was superb throughout, wedding Strauss’s intended Mozartean lightness to his Wagnerian compositional complexity.
As we observed a year ago, it does seem that on opening night, the strings played for a number of bars, with some diffidence. Thus, one wanted more of the score’s first magic, early in the prelude, at rehearsal 2.
Granted the passage is marked pp. But “pp.” is not “timidly.” One felt like yelling—“Come on Women!” (generic for all genders) “Pour your souls into those bows. This theme is a miracle. It is GOD.” Strauss is reported during a rehearsal to have said “Schmalz, meine Herren! Noch mehr Schmalz!” (or words to that effect).
And as to the vocalists, we’ll start, perversely, with the only non-singer. Chuck Schwager enacts a Sprecher role, which in the context of this production is rendered as “the producer.” Hofmannsthal designates it as “Major-Domo.” But for the nonce, the BOF production is set in modern-day Vienna, so there it is. This could still easily be understood as the house of “the Richest Man in Vienna,” though today, Vienna’s Richest Man is probably in the UN’s IAEA. Or, if we switched the setting to Zurich, he’s in FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association). Oh well.
Schwager portrays an obtuse, insufferable Hollywood “suit” to deadpan perfection. Much to our benefit, he speaks English. The few interpolated references to the current Chief Executive are quite funny, without obvious malice, prudently, are delivered to the delight of both ardent Trumpeteer (if any remain in the state) and inflamed Resister. In a chic dark blue suit, Schwager embodied well-tailored sharkskin—arrogant meathead personified.
All of the supporting roles benefited from beautiful singing and acting. Baritone John Demler, appearing briefly in the prologue as an “usher,” (original designation: “Lackey”) poured out a beautiful rich baritone. Evidently he was costumed in one of the Colonial Theater’s own usher uniforms. (Was that possible? It was funny.) Evan Odon unscheduled to appear was in fine voice as Wigmaker. Kyle Pfortmiller enrobed his beautiful baritone with a fine character portrayal as the Music Master. Spencer Viator as Dancing Master/Brighella produced a clear pure tenor and cavorted with astounding gymnastic agility and comic verve. The entire prologue ensemble demonstrated unfailing animation and brio. The entry of “the tenor” destined to sing Bacchus (Kevin Ray), with open chest à la Putin and jeans, sipping a latte smoothie and holding his mobile cell, constituted just another touch of directorial madcap genius.
Ariadne features some of Strauss’s most irresistible melodies. In hopes of luring in the uninitiated, let’s call them “tunes.” There is exquisite ensemble singing for the three nymphs who attend Ariadne. Jeni Houser/Najade, Rebecca Ringle/Dryade and Christine Lyons/Echo were gorgeous in movement, raiment, gesture and song. Likewise, the commedia dell’arte group (Samuel Schultz/Harlekin, the aforementioned Spencer Viator/Brighella, Chris Carr/Scaramuccio and Matthew Scollin/Truffaldin sang their intricate ensembles while managing to top the Three Stooges, with clever twists on the slapstick clichés. Schultz, as Harlekin, wins one of the greatest plums in the evening, with the irresistible song “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen.” Lucky fellow.
The two diametrically opposed female roles, the capricious Zerbinetta and the sublime Ariadne, stand astride Strauss’s giddy artistic summit. As prelude to these two tour de force rôles comes the beautifully crafted part of the Composer in the prologue.
Surely, women approaching all three of these roles do so with awe. Forebears include opera’s most illustrious interpreters. Not to produce a litany, Ariadne (the role) has been interpreted by Lotte Lehmann, the incomparable Maria Jeritza, Crista Ludwig, Leoni Rysanek. Similar stellars have portrayed the composer (Elizabeth Schumann). More recently Kathleen Battle and Roberta Peters have appeared as Zerbinetta. So, to sing these roles is to tread in the steps of goddesses.
As to Adriana Zabala, the Composer, Nicole Haslett as Zerbinetta and Marcy Stonikas as Ariadne, we cannot imagine, at least last night in that house, greater perfections. Zabala, lithe and trim in the pants role of (a male) composer, sang movingly (with perfect soupçons of adolescent cosmic angst) in her exquisite mezzo. (Strauss originally intended the Composer as a soprano, but it is often assigned to a mezzo.) Exiting the theater, glamorously accoutered as a real star, she confided to us how much she loves this role. Charming and disarming.
Stonikas metamorphosed from the prologue’s scheming diva into a Goddess in song and stature. She soared in the great arias “Es gibt ein Reich,” “Ein schönes war” and the transcendent concluding apotheosis. Haslett delivered the comic coloratura role sans merci, Zerbinetta, with incomparable wit, verve and transcendent technique. All three performers triumphed, to the despair of poets.
If you don’t go and see these three ladies exalt in your Berkshire backyard, more fool you.
For more enrichment:
As to the background of this production, click on the Intelligencer preview Here.
As to the opera itself, its historical genesis, performance history, click Here
As to particulars of the plot line, from notes by Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF), click Here.
GE made Pittsfield great. The BOF team—musicians; players; producers; coaches; directors; scene, light, costume, wig designers, stage hands, support troops, patrons—can make you feel great again. Or for the first time.
Tony Schemmer is a New York-born composer living in the Boston area. His works have been performed in Europe, Russia, Japan and the more discerning of the lower forty-eight. His website is here.