Strauss' comedic 'Ariadne' a delight

The Baltimore Sun

If the Three Stooges stumbled into an oh-so-serious performance of Hamlet and carried on as usual alongside the uncomprehending actors, the result would be something akin to Ariadne auf Naxos, the musically and theatrically brilliant work by Richard Strauss that serves as an invigorating finale to Wolf Trap Opera's season.

This company, devoted to the honing of emerging artists, routinely delivers smart, absorbing productions, among the most consistently satisfying to be found in the region. With Ariadne, close on the heels of this summer's snappy take on Verdi's neglected Un giorno di Regno and vivid treatment of Handel's Alcina, the ensemble has hit yet another peak, surely one of its highest yet. Snaring a ticket to tonight's final performance ought to be a priority for any opera fan who missed the first two.

Ariadne, with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is packed with amusing possibilities. The set-up: A wealthy man has invited guests to a gala that includes the premiere of a very lofty opera on a Greek mythological subject, then a commedia dell'arte show and, finally, fireworks. But time is running short, so, to make sure the fireworks can be lit at the appointed hour, orders are given for the opera and the comedy to be performed simultaneously.

From the backstage craziness of the Prologue, with temperamental opera stars and crude comedians bumping egos, the action moves deftly into the odd hybrid entertainment, where Ariadne, pining for death on the lonely isle of Naxos, finds the gang of comedians, led by the vivacious Zerbinetta, trying to cheer her up.

Strauss' inventive score holds all of this together, moving from one melodic high to another, complemented by some of his subtlest, most enchanting orchestration. And when, in the closing minutes, Bacchus arrives to give Ariadne a new reason to live, Strauss doesn't miss the chance to turn out stunningly operatic music.

The Wolf Trap Opera staging, with a fun set by Erhard Rom, updates the action more or less to our time. Director Thaddeus Strassberger takes the libretto and runs with it, often in the campiest of directions. He's aided by Mattie Ullrich's droll costumes, which include an outfit for the male Dance Master that even cross-dressing comic Eddie Izzard might find over-the-top, and a cod piece for one of Zerbinetta's sidekicks sprouting - oh, never mind.

Strassberger keeps the eye well entertained, from a woman in a skimpy Valkyrie costume pole-dancing with a spear, to Zerbinetta getting an assist on high notes with a push to her tush.

On Sunday afternoon, Elizabeth DeShong, as the Composer, sang with terrific expressive impact and proved a convincing actor. (This character typically disappears after the Prologue, but sticks around here in clever fashion.) Marjorie Owens had the power and stamina for the role of Ariadne. A little more tonal warmth would have been nice, but this was grand singing.

Diego Torre brought fortitude and even nuance to the sadistically high tenor part of Bacchus. Zerbinetta's music is likewise stratospheric (Strauss wrote the coloratura aria to end all coloratura arias for this character), and soprano Erin Morley sailed through the assignment in mostly pinpoint, ever-engaging form.

The rest of the large cast came through sturdily and colorfully, as did the orchestra, led with admirable sensitivity by Timothy Long.

Not every minute clicks in the production - the Prologue doesn't need tired bathroom humor or odd dead spots when everything stops for shtick - but this exuberant, imaginative treatment makes the delicious opera even more irresistible than usual.

"Ariadne auf Naxos" will be performed at 8 tonight at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna, Va. Tickets are $68. Call 877-965-3872 or go to

Warner/Nuzova recital

With Baltimore's classical music scene pretty much shut down for the dog days of August, Saturday night's recital by cellist Wendy Warner and pianist Irina Nuzova at An die Musik, which drew a capacity house, proved welcome.

The musicians brought with them an all-Russian, heavy-on-the-romantic program that they will soon record. The main item was Rachmaninoff's sumptuous G minor Cello Sonata, which inspired the tightest, most potently expressive playing of the concert. Warner's dark tone served her particularly well here.

Rachmaninoff's contemporary Nikolai Miaskovsky was represented by his A minor Sonata, a lushly tuneful piece that would be right at home on the soundtrack to a David O. Selznick costume drama. Nuzova articulated the keyboard part with elan.

Warner didn't sound comfortable in a piece by Alfred Schnittke, but she and her accompanist achieved elegant results in the remainder of the recital.


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