In Review > North America

Ariadne auf Naxos

ST. PAUL
Minnesota Opera
9/26/15

HILARITY IS A FINE THING, not least at the opening of a new season. In the case of Minnesota Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos, however, the guffaws seemed too consistent and too preponderant. With a stage full of brilliant singer-actors eager to deploy their comedic gifts, this may have been unavoidable. But as scene after scene of Ariadne—arguably the apex of the partnership between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal—tipped toward farce, and as sight-gag succeeded sight-gag, I had to remind myself that this genre-mixing work—a one-of-a-kind, self-reflexive hybrid of opera seria and opera buffa elements that enacts, inter alia, the perennial tension between high culture and low—has no laugh track (seen Sept. 26).

Devised by Chris Alexander for Seattle Opera, and subsequently remounted in Montreal and Washington, D.C., Minnesota’s  well-travelled Ariadne, newly directed by Alan E. Hicks, situates the action close to home. Hofmannsthal’s “richest man in Vienna” (loosely based on Molière’s M. Jourdain) has now become the “richest man in the Twin Cities”—an unseen billionaire-cum-impresario who hosts the evening’s warring entertainments and its pyrotechnic climax in his private gallery, a space dominated by a huge metallic cylinder à la Richard Serra. The staging—the Minnesota company's first since 1987—systematically subverts Ariadne’s equilibrium, sacrificing gravitas to clowning, and dashing hopes for a cohesive dramatic whole. To be sure, it does this imaginatively and exuberantly. (Cynthia Savage’s costumes were a bright spot.) But by evening’s end, the work’s daring feels compromised.

A splendid musical performance offered the needed consolation. The women, in particular, were superb. As the Prima Donna/Ariadne, American soprano Amber Wagner was nothing less than stunning, inducing, at her best, a kind of euphoria. Her tone, sumptuous yet unforced, was a tangible presence in the room; she proved herself an alert ensemble player and a deft comedienne. This is a major voice and a major artist.

Polish mezzo Hanna Hipp, in her local debut, was an ardent and sympathetic Composer—perhaps the best of Strauss’s trouser roles—capturing the character’s impetuousness and mercuriality. Passionate without being strident, she made her sudden infatuation with Erin Morley’s Zerbinetta seem plausible. Morley, for her part, gave a lapidary account of “Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” animated by storytelling rather than vocal display—a searching performance that bared the melancholia beneath Zerbinetta’s coquetry. The three nymphs’ voices blended beguilingly.

Veteran Dale Travis was an exemplary Music Teacher, completely at home in Strauss’s conversational idiom. Standouts in the formidable commedia dell’arte troupe were Brad Benoit (who doubled as the Dancing Master) and Andrew Lovato (who sounded like a young Hermann Prey). In a class of his own was tenor Brian Jagde (Bacchus), who, though not spared the indignity of being wheeled on stage in a champagne-filled shopping cart, put his jaw-dropping instrument to stirring use; together with Wagner, he made Strauss’s apotheosis unforgettable.

Conductor Michael Christie worked wonders with Strauss’s compact but potent orchestra, realizing a dazzling range of sonorities—now plush, now transparent. The horns, pushed to their limits, were especially valiant. —Larry Fuchsberg 

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