Pittsburgh music-lovers were out in full force at the Twentieth Century Club on Friday evening, July 18, when “SummerFest” gave them a taste of grand opera by a German composer – a treat they get only a couple of times each decade. Richard Strauss’s music was more than welcomed by a good-sized throng, who gave the piece one of the most demonstrative receptions the writer has heard a Pittsburgh audience bestow on an operatic performance in quite some time.
“Ariadne on Naxos,” which Strauss set to a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his frequent collaborator, manages to combine comedy of the slapstick variety with exquisitely beautiful music, the opera’s theme being the competition between “high” and “low” forms of entertainment for the public’s favor. The critic and author Matt Dobkin, commenting on the work and other operas by Strauss, once wrote that, while “Ariadne on Naxos” is “not as well loved as Der Rosenkavalier or as important as Salome, it is nevertheless staged all the time, thanks in large part to sopranos’ attraction to the vocal and dramatic grandeur of the title role and to the compelling spitfire Zerbinetta character.” The opera was originally conceived as a short divertissement to be performed at the end of Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s play “Le Bourgeois gentilhomme,” for Stuttgart in 1912, but the librettist later persuaded the composer to expand the piece into a work in its own right, with varying degrees of success, until the opera as we know it today was premiered in Vienna in 1916.
An intermission divides “The Prologue” and “The Opera.” The first, set in a room in the residence of “the wealthiest man in Vienna,” reveals tense preparations under way for the first performance of a new opera,Ariadne auf Naxos. Much to the dismay of the composer, chaos ensues when it is announced that the thoughtless gentleman of the house has also arranged for his guests’ entertainment a comic ballet entitledZerbinetta and Her Lovers, and that since there will be a fireworks display at precisely 9 p.m., all concerned in both productions, with but a moment’s notice, must figure out a way of combining their efforts and performing the works simultaneously, to save time. The composer, furious with the absurd twist of plans, soon reluctantly agrees when he is charmed by the flirtatious, easy-going and accommodating comic dancer, Zerbinetta.
“The Opera” opens with Ariadne marooned on the island of Naxos, yearning for death after being abandoned by her lover Theseus. Three nymphs represent “Nature,” expressing sympathy, while the despairing Ariadne longs only for the appearance of Hermes, the Messenger of Death, who she will eagerly follow into the underworld. Into this tragic scene springs the vivacious Zerbinetta, who, in what is considered one of the longest and most difficult arias in the soprano repertory, suggests that finding another lover might be a better idea. Unmoved, Ariadne has beached herself on a large rock, despite the best efforts of Zerbinetta and her comic dancers to convince her that the pursuit of life’s pleasures trumps wallowing in the desire for death.
The nymphs announce the approach of the god Bacchus, recently escaped from the clutches of the sorceress, Circe. Ariadne, believing Bacchus to be Death coming for her, approaches him resignedly, but one look at him revives her interest in love and life. As she forgets Theseus and Hermes, Ariadne quickly agrees to follow him to Olympus. To the rear of the stage, Bacchus and Ariadne sing passionately of love, while Zerbinetta, to the front, sings of the fickleness of women. The opera ends with Bacchus and Ariadne fading from view, as Zerbinetta and “The Composer,” who has been watching from the wings, sink into a passionate embrace on Ariadne’s recently deserted rock.
In keeping with “SummerFest’s” policies on such matters, the opera was sung in English. At least that’s what the program notes stated. However, unless one had an English translation of the libretto memorized, there were but few passages, usually when sung in half-voice or less, and principally in “The Prologue,” that were discernible. The rest did not resemble English, German, or any other language with which the writer has even a passing acquaintance, and this defect in the performance was a lively topic for discussion by the audience during the intermission. This is unfortunate, as the singers as a whole had exceptionally powerful and well-schooled voices; but for most, clearly enunciating the text in English was beyond the range of their abilities. Nevertheless, the audience soon put this detail aside, and between the excellence of the orchestra, the many phenomenal voices, and the generally good staging, decided simply to give themselves up to the majesty of Strauss’s music, and, as stated, gave the performance a remarkable ovation.
Strauss, like Wagner, composed his music with few or no interruptions allowing for applause of a particular “aria,” but Elizabeth Fischborn, as Zerbinetta, brought the production to an approximately two-minute standstill with her last note of the famous “High and Mighty Princess” (“Großmächtige Prinzessin”) scene. This diminutive and engaging soprano poured out – with astonishing volume – pure tonal beauty, and gave a distinguished and engaging performance, achieving probably the greatest success of the evening. Elizabeth Baldwin, as the “Prima Donna” of the “Prologue,” and the titular role in “The Opera” portion, possesses an equally imposing voice, which she used to great advantage throughout, although she was a little stiff in action. Both delivered only occasional passages in which the English text was decipherable.
Erika Hennings, as “The Composer,” gave an excellent “male impersonation,” singing with a strong, high mezzo-soprano voice of fine quality, and acted her part with intelligence and enthusiasm. She began with what appeared to be the clearest enunciation of the text that was to be heard, but it shortly became apparent that this was not to be the case. Robert Frankenberry, as “The Tenor”/”Bacchus,” sang acceptably and for the most part was easily understood.
Martin Giles, as the Major-Domo; Benjamin Taylor, the Harlequin; Errin Brooks, Scaramuccio; Eric Lindsey, Truffaldino, and Xiaozhong Wang, as the Wigmaker, were among the numerous participants in the production’s well-rounded and effective ensemble.
Brent McMunn conducted the exceptionally skilled orchestra. He clearly has a thorough grasp of Strauss’s score, its intentions and countless beauties, and the players responded to his unobtrusive baton brilliantly.
The opera will be repeated on Sunday, July 20, for the 2:00 matinee, and again on Saturday, July 26, at 7:30.
For full upcoming production, cast, schedule, and ticket information, please visit www.otsummerfest.org
Special thanks to the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh for two complimentary press tickets.
Jonathan Eaton, Director; Marie Yokoyama, Scenic Designer; Cynthia Albert, Costume Designer; Stevie Agnew, Lighting Designer; Mark Lamanna, Choreographer; Taylor Malott, Hair and Makeup Design; Dustin R. Cañez, Stage Manager.