The setup is pure comic gold.
Sometimes you just can’t make up your mind—should you go for pizza or burgers? Superhero blockbuster or art house film? Serious drama or light comedy? For people finding themselves contemplating the latter dilemma, Richard Strauss’ Ariadne on Naxos offers the perfect solution: An opera seria with frequent interruptions by a commedia dell’arte troupe. Even better, it’s all sandwiched into a backstager featuring rival entertainers forced to perform simultaneously so that the evening’s real centerpiece, a fireworks display, can go on as scheduled.
Sadly, we don’t get to see the fireworks, but the setup is pure comic gold, and something that every musician can appreciate. While you may think your particular performance is the most important thing in the world, it’s quite possible that for the guy signing the checks, to say nothing of the audience, you’re not even the most important thing happening that evening.
The key to a successful Ariadne is that the opera seria folks have to play it absolutely straight, and in this Opera Theatre production they do so superbly. Marjorie Owens plays the title role of the opera-within-the-opera with a commanding voice and stage presence coupled with willingness to be a good sport, because in Strauss’s meta-world, she’s Margaret Dumont while the commedia troupe get to scamper around being the Marx Brothers. Her co-star, A.J. Glueckert, is equally fine as a self-important tenor singing the role of Bacchus, who comes to rescue Ariadne from her lonely isle (she’s pining away after being abandoned by Theseus, a story you may remember from Greek mythology).
One of the delights of Ariadne is the breeches role of the Composer, performed by mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall with a fine comic understanding of what an aesthete/drama queen this young man is meant to be. In case you were wondering, a breeches role is a male character traditionally performed by a woman, and such characters are typically young men for whom a high voice and slender build are appropriate—other examples include Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus, and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
Broadway star (and St. Louis native) Ken Page is a commanding presence in the speaking role of the Major Domo, while sporting a costume designed by Amanda Seymour that can only be described as “Thomas Jefferson takes an acid trip.” The Major Domo wears 18th century attire, while the production has been moved to the late 19th century (think Dickens, not powdered wigs), but it all works to underline the eclectic nature of this opera. Elizabeth Sutphen, Stephanie Sanchez, and Liv Redpath are outstanding as three nymphs within the opera seria, singing beautifully while wearing costumes and gamely performing stiff gestures recalling ancient Greek statuary; other standouts include Levi Hernandez as the Music Master and Matthew DiBattista as the Dancing Master.
The real scene-stealer, however, is So Young Park as Zerbinetta, who has a beau for every corner of the stage and a coloratura voice more than up to the considerable demands of this role. Equally important, her mischievous delight in taking the mickey out of the overly serious classical musicians keeps the evening’s entertainment joyful rather than mean-spirited. | Sarah Boslaugh
Ariadne on Naxos will be performed by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL) through June 24 at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119) in repertory with La Boheme, Macbeth, and Shalimar the Clown. Single tickets are $25 to $125, with various subscription packages also available. Further information is available from the OTSL website.
Photo: Ken Howard