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Opera Review

Meeting the challenge of ‘Ariadne’

Ta’u Pupu’a as Bacchus and Emalie Savoy as Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos’’ at Tanglewood. Ta’u Pupu’a as Bacchus and Emalie Savoy as Ariadne in “Ariadne auf Naxos’’ at Tanglewood. (Hilary Scott)
By David Perkins
Globe Correspondent / August 4, 2010

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LENOX — “A very serious trifle’’ is how the librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal described the opera he was writing with Richard Strauss, “Ariadne auf Naxos,’’ the third of their inspired collaborations. He was referring to his clever idea of combining comedy and serious opera, a challenge that Strauss met by creating music of a light Baroque texture for a small orchestra and with some of the most demanding vocal writing in opera. It might be thought a tall order for students, even the students of the Tanglewood Music Center, but the premiere on Friday of Ira Siff’s latest production was delightful, above all for its splendid singing.

“Ariadne’’ begins with a prologue. We are backstage in the house theater of a Viennese count who disrupts plans for post-banquet entertainment by ordering that the two acts he has called for — a commedia dell’arte troupe, and a new opera seria — be performed simultaneously. How they do this, the count’s major domo tells the players, is up to them. This is a fine comic hook, but there is time for some moralizing. Hoffmansthal gives the self-involved young composer of the commissioned opera, deeply indignant at the cuts, a paean to “the holy art’’ of music. When he is knocked off-balance by a hot kiss from the commedia troupe’s zany, flirty Zerbinetta, we are set up beautifully for the deeper theme of the opera to come: fidelity and dedication to an ideal vs. acceptance of uncertainty and the need to gather rosebuds while we may.

The opera-within-the-opera that follows is congealed genius, and it can rarely have been funnier. In the middle of the mythological story of Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the isle of Naxos, pining in her cave, the comedians arrive, dressed (as Siff has it) for Beach Blanket Bingo. They find a role in trying to cheer up Ariadne, who clearly needs it. Zerbinetta sings a very long aria, complete with trills, runs, and two A-flats. Ariadne, unmoved, resolves to await death. She’s lucky this is a comic opera. When a stranger arrives, she takes him to be Hermes, the messenger of death. It turns out to be the god Bacchus, released from Circe’s spell, who falls in love with her. The opera ends with a love duet as beautiful as Tristan and Isolde’s. The trifle has turned very serious indeed.

There is not a weak link in the cast of Tanglewood fellows. As the composer, mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall is ardent and easily handles the high-lying vocal line of her great aria. In the title role, Emalie Savoy has a handsome dramatic soprano, especially appealing in the lower and middle registers, and looks beautiful in her handsome Grecian gown. As Zerbinetta, Audrey Elizabeth Luna bounces around the stage like a beach ball and sings her long aria with amazing ease. As her occasional lover, Harlekin, Elliot Madore has a warm, powerful baritone and romped freely onstage. (He also sang the Music Master in the prologue.) The tenor Ta’u Pupu’a, a tall and handsome Bacchus, grew in vocal strength and by the end of the love duet was making a truly heroic sound. Christoph von Dohnányi, stepping in on short notice for James Levine, led the 39-member orchestra with a clear eye and ear for the singers.

The sets by Eduardo Sicangco were only a partial success. Traditionally, the prologue is set backstage. But Sicangco opens the opera in a two-level basement-wine cellar near the kitchen. It’s confusing, and there’s a lot going on, with waiters carrying trays, etc., that distracts from the plot. For the opera set, we get a great room of white marble, with a row of flat pillars in the back through which you see sky. This is a nice mirror of Ariadne’s state of mind and offers a neutral color scheme against which the brightly clad commedia players and the Nymphs stand out. (Sicangco also designed the exquisite costumes.)

The set doesn’t work as well for Bacchus’s arrival, which should be spectacular and convey a sense of release. He has to negotiate the pillars. At the end of the love duet, the pillars lift to reveal the blue firmament, but this is late, and not tied to a real shift in the music. What if they lifted when Bacchus arrived, and Ariadne’s transformation really began? The ending calls for real stage magic, a completed illusion, and, with such music, we’d accept an enormous stretch.

David Perkins can be reached at davidsperkins@gmail.com.

ARIADNE AUF NAXOS

By Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal

Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows and Orchestra, conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. Directed by Ira Siff. Sets and costumes, Eduardo Sicangco. Lights, Matthew McCarthy.

At: Tanglewood, Friday (repeats today)