Palm Beach Opera closes season with a triumphant “Ariadne auf Naxos”

By Lawrence Budmen

Brian Jagde and Wendy Bryn Harmer star in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at Palm Beach Opera.

Brian Jagde and Wendy Bryn Harmer star in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” at Palm Beach Opera.

Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a special operatic confection. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal combined Grecian myth with musical burlesque and a wry commentary on the backstage politics of artists serving the tastes and whims of aristocrats.

Palm Beach Opera’s production of this masterpiece, which opened Friday night at the Kravis Center, is one of the company’s best offerings of recent seasons. A splendid cast that was equal to the score’s formidable challenges, masterful conducting and near-ideal production made this an operatic evening to savor.

The opera’s prologue is set in the home of the richest man in Vienna who has engaged a young composer to produce a new opera and a group of vaudevillians to present a light comedic entertainment. When the master’s major domo announces that there is not time for both productions, due to the scheduled hour of the fireworks that will cap the evening, and that both shows must be presented simultaneously, chaos ensues among the artists. Their resulting solution to the theatrical problem comprises the opera proper. Strauss has bathed this synthesis of musical comedy and grand opera in some of his most glorious operatic music this side of Der Rosenkavalier. (When will one of South Florida’s major operatic companies finally present that masterpiece?)

The roles of Ariadne and the god Bacchus (who transforms the grieving heroine through love)  challenge the singers with music of almost Wagnerian dimensions and difficulty. Both Wendy Bryn Harmer and Brian Jagde scored triumphs, meeting the vocal demands head on and turning the roles’ mythical stereotypes into real characters with deep emotions.

In the prologue, Harmer was an imperious prima donna, acting with arrogant disdain for her fellow performers and hilariously fainting when told of the combined productions. As Ariadne, Harmer unveiled a luminous Wagnerian soprano with a laser-like top. The luster and depth of her lower register vividly conveyed Ariadne’s despair and her glorious voice resounded freely through Strauss’ long vocal paragraphs..

The role of Bacchus is notoriously high and more than one seasoned tenor has come to grief attempting it. Arriving in a ship of gold, Jagde’s refulgent, heroic sound swept all before him. His voice conveyed beauty and ardor as well as sheer strength and volume. In the concluding duet, a final burst of Straussian lyricism, Harmer and Jagde’s voices were thrilling.

The role of Zerbinetta, the leader of the comedians, is a coloratura minefield. Her 14-minute showpiece aria, “Grössmachtige Prinzessin,” almost makes Lucia’s mad scene seem like vocal child’s play. Kathleen Kim was a natural soubrette, projecting the spitfire’s mix of cynicism and charm. A captivating stage presence, the petite soprano’s dazzling high range, sweetness of timbre and flexibility brought down the house. Kim’s voice could be both brilliant and caressing. Her scene in the prologue as Zerbinetta consoles the distraught composer was exquisitely projected and showed Zerbinetta’s vulnerability beneath the tough exterior.

In the role of the composer, a sort of budding Mozart, Irene Roberts was a total delight. Her radiant and gleaming mezzo was equally potent in portraying the young artist’s bewilderment at the disorganized backstage antics and her paean to the nobility of art. Her ease and lack of strain at the top was a real plus in this frequently high role.

The production was cast from strength in all of the smaller roles. As the Music Maste, Mark Schnaible’s imposing bass-baritone brought out the mentor’s gruff indignation. John Easterlin’s light tenor and comedic gifts as the Dancing Master calmed the motley crew. In the spoken role of the Majordomo, Anthony Laciura made every line count and commanded the stage like a veteran character singer. The vaudevillians were a lively, vocally gutsy bunch with Kenneth Stavert’s Harlequin a standout. His warm baritone in duet with Kim was a total delight. Jessica Fishenfield, Fleur Barron and Liana Guberman as Ariadne’s nymphs blended to scintillating effect in trio.

Andreas Delfs, a veteran conductor of German operatic repertoire, led the 36-piece ensemble in a wonderfully detailed reading of Strauss’ subtly textured score. Delfs’ careful balancing of harp and winds as underpinning to the nymphs’ hymn was one of the highlights of a masterfully directed performance The Palm Beach Opera Orchestra (including a harmonium) has rarely sounded better.

Daniel Witzke’s inventive staging was inspired, with several striking visual moments and wit. From the clowns’ cavorting to the nymphs’ entrance down a stone staircase, the production’s energy never flagged. Wolfram Skalicki’s handsome sets (originally designed for Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company) made handsome backdrops for the action. The chandeliers and side boxes (populated by members of the aristocracy and the composer) that surrounded the performance of the opera were particularly striking.

There are only two performances left of this memorable realization of a one-of-a kind opera. Lovers of Strauss and grand opera should not miss the opportunity to see such a musically idiomatic and theatrically adroit staging of an operatic classic.

Palm Beach Opera repeats Ariadne auf Naxos 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. At the Saturday performance, Amber Wagner sings Ariadne, Bridgette Gan is Zerbinetta and Jeffrey Hartman plays Bacchus.

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Sat Mar 19, 2016
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