Sunday, April 3, 2016

Missing ingredients but golden music at CitiOpera's Ariadne auf Naxos

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, an opera within an opera in which an amalgam of indecorous "commedia dell'arte" characters and exponents of serious opera vie for the theatrical limelight at the home of the richest man in Vienna, boils down to the sticky behind-the-scenes travails of artistic ideals and the realities it collides with. With dinner running behind schedule, the rich benefactor demands that the evening's two divertissements are to be combined in order to meet the scheduled nine o'clock fireworks. A last-minute creative flush from a roomful of personalities needs to happen fast.

Pumping up flexibility within operative constraints gives long-term life for any performing company. Melbourne's small independent team at CitiOpera step up to the task bravely, this time steering away from their usual offering of Italian opera towards the more iron-like qualities of German repertoire.

Henry Choo as Bacchus and Wendy Grose as Ariadne
The results come mixed in a production that director Stella Axarlis brings to the stage with a bright and legible interpretation. Erika Kimpton-Etter's effective set design charms with its projections of a palatial salon in the Prologue and the ruins of a Greek temple on a sky-high outcrop in the Opera. Enhanced by Silvia Scodellaro's tastefully considered costumes (I can't say the same for the heavy blonde wigs worn by the nymphs) and complemented by Daniel Jow's evocative lighting shifts, the creative juices mix pleasingly.

What is missing, however, with every member of the large cast having a clear role to play from the wig maker to the prima donna, is the outpouring of a more relaxed and risqué approach to ignite the grand passions and indelicate comedy in the work.

The work's spoken German dialogue comes across flat and the Prologue scene in which idealogical tensions erupt between the Composer and Zerbinetta, is under-baked as the tension fizzles out all-too-quickly into sweet amorous embraces. Post-interval, the Opera is graciously handled while Harlequin and his well-timed boys punctured the seriousness entertainingly. Their lead Zerbinetta, however, isn't able to outperform their troupe.

On opening night, vocal inconsistencies added a few more fissures but the music was served beautifully by several key performers. Kristen Leich is airtight in the role of the Composer, portraying the frazzled artist with smooth, pure-toned and cleanly phrased vocal adeptness.

As the Prologue's prima donna, Wendy Grose stomps with weighty urgency, then makes a compelling metamorphosis as Ariadne in a role that demands the lot. From debilitating anguish after her abandonment by Theseus to rejuvenated sensualness in union with Bacchus, Grose produces a vocally rich and shapely sound, showing both forthright robustness and a lightness that melts the senses as she digs deep into the emotional journey.

Kristen Leich as the Composer
As Bacchus, Henry Choo makes an impressive side balcony entrance in what becomes the evening's most vocally assured performance, projecting with keenly-balanced and  resonantly meaty strength to give every phrase conviction.

Raphael Wong brings a calm, collected and polished sensibility to the Music Master. Michael Lampard stands out amongst his troupe as Harlequin with a fireside-warm baritone alongside Daniel Sinfield's sparky Brighella. Carolina Biasoli (Nalad), Karen Van Spall (Dryad) and Genevieve Dickson (Echo) found the perfect measure of delicious vocal blending after a tentative introduction but looked uncertain and forgotten during Ariadne's lengthy passages.

Disappointingly, Zerbinetta, the zesty and lascivious burlesque leading lady and the opera's second diva who is given the work's unforgettably sparkling coloratura, gets a lukewarm portrayal from a vocally challenged Tamzyn Alexander. As Alexander could show, certainly the notes were achievable and an attractive crystalline tone is present but the rigorous musical line came undone.

Above all, the stars of the night (and continuing CitiOpera's run of thoroughly engaging music-making) are the 20-strong members of the orchestra who played with noticeable finesse, and conductor David Kram who sculptured a music that carries the darting emotive shifts with consummate passion.

What lies in the wings remains a mystery but I look forward to CitiOpera's next courageous move.

Production Photos: CitiOpera

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