A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, March 3. Remaining performances March 8 and 10
Arguably, there could never be a perfect production of the Richard Strauss opera Ariadne auf Naxos; the piece itself is flawed. The first act is a kind of prologue. A rich patron of the arts invites both an opera company and a commedia dell'arte troupe to his house on the same evening. Concerned that their two presentations will overlap, he forces a merger and orders them to combine forces. Act 2 is the actual performance of this strange hybrid; at least, it's meant to be. The trouble is that Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, never managed to find a way to make the thing live up to its advance billing. There's a prolonged antic moment when the two worlds meet and fail to mesh. Otherwise, the two acts pretty well evolve independently, and at length.
However, the music is so damned gorgeous that the shortcomings are easy to forgive, and the five good reasons to see the Vancouver Opera production of Ariadne all have to do with musical performance. One would be the opera orchestra. This is a difficult and diaphanous score, and under the direction of Jonathan Darlington, the musicians played it beautifully. Two would be Tracy Dahl, whose stage prowess is legendary and whose brilliant and focused coloratura makes her a Zerbinetta for the ages. Three would be Lori Phillips as Ariadne, who has the meaty, unflagging voice required of Strauss and Richard Wagner sopranos. Four would be Beth Clayton as the Composer, for whom the first act is like a long and emotionally demanding concert aria. This was really remarkable singing, and we heard the same from reason five, the tenor John Mac Master as Bacchus. There was not much to complain about vocally at all; the whole cast distinguished itself to a greater or lesser degree. Bravo to them and to Darlington.
I felt a little badly for the principals, the women anyway, all of whom had to spend quite a lot of time singing from the kneeling or prone position, and to what good dramatic effect I wasn't sure.
And as for the look of the production, well, Robin Vest's set in the second act just seemed to be a, a—oh, what do we call it in English? Oh yes, now I remember—a mistake. For one thing, the bluffs of the island where Ariadne has washed up (that'd be yer Naxos, eh?) had to be repeatedly mounted, and it was disconcerting to watch the cast walk so gingerly, and so often, up and down stairs that were hidden from view but that gave the impression of being steep and rickety and perilous to negotiate, especially in them there trailing gowns. (This is a coproduction with Utah Opera.) It had a kind of velvet-painting-of-the-mesa vibe happening.
That it was so contrivedly ugly I understood to be a joke, but it was a joke that didn't take long to show its seams or, in an odd way, to highlight rather than to distract from the inherent flaws in the opera itself. But oh, that music, and oh, that singing. Sumptuous.
Both are evidence, rarer and rarer to find, that we can, as a species, do good in the world.