“Ariadne” is Mad Magic: Pacific Opera Pulls It Off

This ain’t your grandma’s grand opera.

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is one of the most playful, self-mocking romps in all of opera. And when it comes to having fun while putting world-class new talent on the stage, nobody beats Pacific Opera Project.

Put the two together and you have an evening of music that rocks from madcap to majestic and back, taking your breath away one moment and tickling you silly the next.  It’s a dont-miss event.

Tracy Cox (on poster), Robert Norman, Sarah Duchovnay, Keith Colclough, Jon Lee Keenan

Tracy Cox (on poster), Robert Norman, Sarah Duchovnay, Keith Colclough, Jon Lee Keenan

A century ago, at the height of his fame, Strauss decided to mix the “low art” of the music hall and the “high art” of Wagnerian epic in a single show. So he and his librettist cooked up the tale of a young composer whose Ariadne ends up onstage not before or after but at the same time as a racy burlesque revue. Strauss wanted to poke fun at the self-absorbed seriousness of the classical-music world — and to show off his mastery of every kind of opera there’d ever been.

He pulled it off.  And in so doing, he created an enormous challenge for  opera companies. To do Ariadne, you need not one, not two, but three top-of-the-line sopranos — a Wagnerian power singer, a lyric mezzo, and a coloratura with the endurance  of a marathon runner. And they must all be able to do comedy.

P.O.P. pulls it off. In the title role, Tracy Cox deploys a rich voice with the dynamic range of a pipe organ to awe us or touch us to tears — and flicks her fingers or an eyebrow to bring down the house. Claire Shackleton poetically portrays a callow Composer whose world is turned upside down twice. And Sara Duchovnay not only makes the saucy Zerbinetta irresistible, she leads her chorus of clowns and water nymphs through dizzying bel canto labyrinths, turning one of opera’s most demanding roles into a seemingly effortless delight.

Of course, Ariadne takes even more than three wonderful sopranos. Baritone Ryan Thorne holds the chaos of Act I together with his firm, clear voice and presence; rising young heldentenor Brendan Sliger, as Bacchus, meets Cox’s commanding power and balances it.  The clown quartet (tenors Jon Lee Keenan and Robert Norman, baritone Nicholas LaGesse and bass-baritone Keith Colclough) season their  fine-tuned ensemble singing with Marx Brothers slapstick. And the three water nymphs (sopranos Maria Elena Altany and Kelci Hahn, and mezzo Sarah Beaty) create witty comic moments, as well as a rendition of “Töne, töne” that would have made Schubert weep.

Credit must also go to maestro Stephen Karr and his 11-piece orchestra, who comfortably handle Strauss’ difficult score, which calls for everything from music-hall band to string quartet to full symphony. Impresario Josh Shaw’s design includes some achingly funny visual jokes. And costumer Maggie Green’s inspired notions set the period and tone perfectly — the clowns caper in matching checked suits, the nymphs in color-coordinated swimwear, while  Ariadne (afloat in a veritable cloud) and Bacchus (strutting in toga and leopard skin) underline Strauss’ loving parody of Wagner.

The effort invested in a translating Act I to English may not have been fully repaid, and some opening-night quirks in the supertitle projector need fixing.  But these are gnats on a summer evening, unable to dim the glories of this luminous production.

In writing Ariadne auf Naxos, Strauss demonstrated — even as he poked gentle fun at opera — his love and mastery of all its forms.
In staging Ariadne, Pacific Opera Project likewise displays a witty  playfulness and a maturing mastery that make for an unmatched theatrical and musical experience.
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Ariadne auf Naxos, by Richard Strauss, directed by Josh Shaw, conducted by Stephen Karr.
Presented by Pacific Opera Project at the Ebell Club, 131 South Ave. 57, Highland Park.

Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, through May 23rd.

Tickets: <www.pacificoperaproject.com>