Richard Strauss, ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, Amira McCavitt (The Prima Donna/Ariadne), Scott Rumble (The Tenor/Bacchus), Elizabeth Harris (Zerbinetta), Charlotte Beglinger (Komponist), Jason Klippenstein (Musiklehrer), Spencer Britten (Tanzmeister), Yuhui Wang (Harlekin), Kurt Haunsperger (Haushofmeister) and others: Members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, Jonathan Darlington (Conductor), Alessia Carpoca (Set Design), Jeremy Baxter (Lighting Design), Parvin Mirhady (Costume Design), Old Auditorium UBC, June 24, 2017.

It was an inspired idea to have Vancouver Opera take part in UBC’s production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, continuing the fruitful collaboration of the opera company and the opera programme. In the last few years we have seen Nancy Hermiston—Chair of Voice and Opera at UBC and Director of their Opera Ensemble—direct acclaimed VOA productions of La bohème, Rigoletto, and Die Fledermaus. And now, at the helm of the current university production, we have Jonathan Darlington, Music Director of Vancouver Opera, with his team of instrumentalists from the Vancouver Opera Orchestra. Even with the aid of his expert hand, it was quite brave of an opera school to put on Ariadne, with the heroic singing required from both Ariadne and Bacchus and some of the trickiest coloratura in the repertoire from Zerbinetta. Despite these challenges, the opera was well chosen, allowing a wide display of acting skills as well as vocal—a splendid all round workout for the student cast, and one which allowed the rare opportunity for the singers to perform a Strauss opera with exactly the orchestral forces (36 players) that the composer called for.    

The opera is a (charmingly) bizarre concoction from Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, among the most successful composer-librettist collaborators in operatic history. With Strauss’s inclination to kitsch and Hofmannsthal’s to philosophical opacity (Strauss had to have the libretto’s meaning explained to him), they chastened each other’s talents into producing a masterpiece of generic blending, following upon such triumphs as Elektra (1909) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911), to be succeeded by Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1927), and Arabella (1933). None was more successful or odder than Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, 1916).

The opera presents a delightful mix of serious and comic, poking fun at the pretensions of serious opera at the same time as it celebrates them. The opera is in one act, starting from a Prologue portraying the back-stage bickering of a production whose parameters are being changed alarmingly by the minute, followed by the 'opera within the opera', a compromise between the desires of the composer, the principals, the household where it is being staged, and a visiting troupe of commedia dell’arte players. It combines actors and singers, serious characters and comic, at the whim of a nouveau-riche philistine, who wants to make economical use of a nearly empty set (a desert island) by introducing more characters, thereby also saving time so that his dinner guests can watch the fireworks. This means a highly serious opera is going to have to share the stage with the comedy troupe, to the intense chagrin of the Komponist. The opera’s theme is the transformative power of love, to which it manages to give both serious and comic treatment: a transformation from death to life in the Ariadne story, from mortal to immortal, and from one lover to the next in the earthier view of Zerbinetta, the leader of the comedy troupe. While showing sympathy for Ariadne’s plight as abandoned lover, Zerbinetta manages to be a gadfly as well as a predictor of the outcome: one lover (Bacchus) will indeed replace the previous (Theseus), to the ecstatic acquiescence of the death-absorbed Ariadne and the smug satisfaction of her unwanted advisor.

The production in UBC’s Old Auditorium was thoroughly satisfying, managing to feel quite professional throughout. A formidable force was the opera orchestra under the baton of Maestro Darlington, who kept the pace and shape of the work firmly in line, always underlining its dramatic arc and consistently aware of the lyricism and tender beauty in the score. Another plus was the theatre itself, a 522-seat shoe-box concert hall with a 60-seat orchestra pit, a beautiful heritage gothic look, good acoustics, and fine site lines. Would that no opera house were larger. Then there was the fine direction of Nancy Hermiston: imaginative and simple, the action serving the story well. The set by Alessia Carpoca and costumes by Parvin Mirhady were beautiful and functional, giving a satisfying feeling of era—both the 18th century of the Prologue and the ancient Greek times of the Ariadne story.

The cast was generally excellent; in fact, you quickly forgot you were watching a student production. The Ariadne of Amira McCavitt was stately and artfully sung, with a beautiful lower and mid register, and an upper register equally beautiful when not too loud. Only occasionally did a slight wobble show itself in forte passages in high register. Her ‘Es gibt ein Reich’ was tenderly and exquisitely rendered. Elizabeth Harris’s Zerbinetta was also extremely well sung, the test piece being of course ‘Grossemächtige Prinzessin’, which she navigated with great skill: no trills, it’s true, perhaps with a trifle less character than you might like, but with a seamless voice through the registers and a top that was accurate and well controlled—a tour-de-force performance. Scott Rumble as Bacchus was stunning, with a strong stage presence and a voice that is going to make him a formidable heldentenor one day. He was in perfect control through his range and dynamics, his darkly burnished tenor reminding me of the young Jon Vickers. The unfailing singing and orchestral playing of the last twenty minutes of the opera had me mesmerized, with the help, of course, of Strauss’s ravishing score, superbly articulated by Maestro Darlington. He secured a lovely refinement and intimacy from his players, with sentient strings and particularly impressive contributions from the principal clarinet and horn.

The nymphs, played by Andrea Wyllie, Tamar Simon, and Jillian Clow, handled their ensemble and solo passages with panache, adding grace to their scenes. The commedia dell’arte troupe—Ian McCloy, Yuhui Wang, Brent MacKenzie, and Matthew McLellan—proved great fun, thanks to their youthful ebullience and the direction of Nancy Hermiston. Yuhui Wang made an excellent Harlekin, singing with real distinction and strong characterization.

The Prologue was also well served by instrumentalists and cast. Charlotte Beglinger as the Komponist was a delight, acting and singing the part with conviction, making the most of the beauty of ‘his’ inspiration for ‘his’ opera-in-progress. My only complaint was a tendency to shrillness at the top, something time and further training may soften. Jason Klippenstein proved an alert and flexible Musiklehrer, frustrated and sympathetic by turns, producing admirable tone, if occasionally delivering his lines on the quick side. Spencer Britten’s Tanzmeister was characterful, while Kurt Haunsperger as the Haushofmeister—the only spoken part—gave a fine comic turn with his pedantic and condescending manner and his super-precise German.

Ariadne auf Naxos is one of my favourite operas and I have to say I found this an utterly engrossing production. It was beautiful and funny by turns, well-paced, very musical, and compelling. And the ‘Old Aud’ was very much a part of the evening’s pleasure, the perfect setting for one of the most inventive chamber operas of the 20th century. Well done, UBC Opera Ensemble!


© Harvey De Roo 2017

All photos by Tim Matheson