Pacific Opera Project takes ‘Ariadne’ outside the Naxos

Imagine Los Angeles in 1913: before World War I, before Hollywood, before downtown was really a thing.  Pacific Opera Project has done it again, building something unique from the familiar, and giving Richard Strauss’ beloved opera-about-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, a nostalgic turn in modernity by looking back to the show’s own time period… in California.  Sung in English and German, with an English libretto by music director Stephen Karr, this is an ingenious approach to Strauss’ idiosyncratic opera.  We were there on Thursday, May 21 to take it all in.

The original story opens in the salon of “the richest man in Vienna”, and this production displaces the action to the opening of POP’s actual venue — the Ebell Club in Highland Park.  Led by impresario H.H. Meyer, a fictional backstory provided in the program describes local politics, rivalries between husband and wife, a passion for fireworks and the intricacies of local zoning laws that bring the story to life.

As the show opens, two groups of performers prepare for very different presentations, both scheduled for the same gala event:  a grand opera with mythic themes, and another featuring Zerbinetta and Her Merry Men (pictured top), a burlesque with a more populist approach to entertainment.  The decision is made to combine the two in order to accommodate the evening’s timetable, resulting in a whole show built on duality, questioning the values of art vs. entertainment, drama vs. comedy, life and death, love and despair, and on and on. This is Strauss having some fun at his own expense as well as that of his operatic cohorts, but he didn’t skimp on craftsmanship: the music is simply divine, and contains some of his richest material.

The mark of director/designer Josh Shaw is clearly apparent in this production, and the iconoclast is in his element, moving the cast around the small stage in an ever-evolving series of pictures and comedic bits reminiscent of early films, vaudeville, melodrama… even the Karate Kid.  This mix of high-handed farce and serious drama would be too much for many auteurs, and too often, treatment of Ariadne leans too far to the conservative side, focusing on the glorious music and missing the fun.  But with delightful choreography by Heather Lipson Bell and appropriately quirky costumes by Maggie Green, Shaw and his team dove right in and have whipped up one seriously enjoyable show.

L to R: Sarah Beaty, Ryan Thorn, Marina Harris, and a hat that deserves its own credit. (Costumes by Maggie Green)

Meyer, the impresario, is played by Timothy Campbell with a smooth voice and magnetic presence.  Campbell’s “other” experience in theater and audiobooks really showed, setting a high bar for delivery of spoken lines, which is difficult for many singers.   Ryan Thorn sounded great as the music teacher, with even tone and snappy delivery of his recitative. His student, the composer, was played this evening by mezzo Aumna Iqbal, whose considerable stage presence brought pathos to the artistic dilemma raised by the combined styles.

As the flirty Zerbinetta, Brooke de Rosa was adorable, and the demanding role shows off the shimmering coloratura of her upper range, where her voice is strongest.  Her four Merry Men, playing dual roles in the prologue and singing well throughout, were funny and charming, fully committed to the slapstick, with antics ranging from swimming makeshift “seas” made by coordinated slats of wood to wooing nymphs with ukelele serenades and in one instance, even licking a fish.  (The moment was very Dali, and it was hilarious.)  They sounded good, too, separately and together:  tenor Jon Lee Keenan, always a pleasure to hear, knocked out comic lines with real musicality and light ease.  Robert Norman, a POP regular, is a skilled singer with a special gift for comedy, so engaging that it’s hard to stop watching him – you never know what he’ll do next.  Baritone Nicholas LaGesse stood out for his voice’s natural, honeyed tone and his winning character.  And bass-baritone Keith Colclough sang with a gorgeous instrument that is resonant, reflective and a little mysterious.

Brendan Sliger and Marina Harris as Bacchus and Ariadne

As Bacchus, Brendan Sliger‘s compelling portrayal, first as the frustrated divo and then as a demigod in love, was peppered with many genuinely funny moments, yet true to character whether the scene leaned toward melodrama or triumphant myth.  Ariadne’s handmaidens, whether nymphs, mermaids or entourage, were generally lovely to see and hear: sopranos Maria Elena Altany and Kelci Hahn and mezzo Sarah Beaty flirted with the guys, and coaxed and soothed the desperate Ariadne as she mourns love’s loss and prepares for what she believes to be her coming death.  Although their ensemble was not as tight as one might wish, their performance was delightful.

The composer (Aumna Iqbal) confers with her diva (Marina Harris) in the prologue
The composer (Aumna Iqbal) confers with her diva (Marina Harris) in the prologue

As good as the cast was overall, however, it was Marina Harris that stole the show, with a vocal and dramatic performance that was superb throughout.  Ariadne is a difficult role, requiring stamina, depth and strong comic timing in addition to an exceptional, powerful voice, and Harris’ lyricism was as haunting as her deadpan humor was funny.  Her voice has grown even more sure and lovely than when we saw her in POP’s Turn of the Screw last year, with the same tragic urgency.  She takes the stage as if she were born to it, and perhaps she was.

The orchestra ably navigated Strauss’ score, which is not for newbies, even in a reduction by Christopher Fecteau.  Under Karr’s skillful leadership, the ensemble showed the right amount of swoon to quite believably portray a small local orchestra of the period, while leaning into the grandiosity of the second act beautifully.

There were a few noticeably wonky production details, with supertitles appearing inconsistently and a couple of backdrop snafus.  Some of the Merry Men are better dancers than others, and could have used some extra polish.  And disaster was apparently averted early on, as it looked (and sounded) very likely that one of the nymphs was nearly dropped on her head as she was carried off into the darkness.  But it all worked out, and shows both why live theater is so exhilarating and why this company is known for doing much with very little: the overall design and well-developed dialogue created for this production effectively set just the right tone, transporting the enthusiastic audience into the era of a century ago.  It was a good night in Highland Park, no matter the year.

Next up

POP’s Falstaff brings Verdi to Glendale’s Forest Lawn in September, for an outdoor show overlooking the lights of Glendale and Burbank.  Tickets are available now, and early purchase is advisable:  Click here to visit Pacific Opera Project’s website

NOTE, fyi:  The Ariadne event described here was the “cover performance”, with the three female leads played by alternates.  For the rest of the run, Ariadne was played by Tracy Cox; Zerbinetta by Sara Duchovnay; and the Komponist (composer) by Claire Shackleton.

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