La Scena Musicale

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ariadne Revisited: May 3 2011

Adrianne Pieczonka (Prima Donna) and Richard Stilwell (Music Master) in Prologue of Canadian Opera Company's Ariadne auf Naxos (Photo: Michael Cooper)















by Joseph K. So

Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Four Seasons Centre, May 3, 2011
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Stage Director: Neil Armfield
Set & Costume Designer: Dale Ferguson

Adrianne Pieczonka (Ariadne/Prima Donna)
Richard Margison (Bacchus/Tenor)
Alice Coote (Komponist)
Jane Archibald (Zerbinetta)
Richard Stilwell (Music Master)
Thomas Hauff (Major Domo)
John Easterlin (Dancing Master/Brighella)
Adrian Kramer (Wigmaster)
Doug McNaughton (Lackey)
Roger Honeywell (Officer)
Simone Osborne (Naiad)
Lauren Segal (Dryad)
Teiya Kasahara (Echo)
Peter Barrett (Harlequin)
Michael Uloth (Truffaldino)
Christopher Enns (Scaramuccio)

As a self-professed Strauss Nut, there are a few operas that I can't seem to get enough of, and Ariadne auf Naxos is one of them. I was introduced to this gem thirty years ago by Father Owen Lee, then professor of classics at St. Michael's College of U of T. It has become, together with Die Frau ohne Schatten, two of my very favourite operas. These two works have in common stories that operate on many levels of meaning - psychological, personal, relational, and spiritual. They appeal to the senses and to the intellect. In the many Ariadne productions I've seen over the years - good, bad or indifferent, I was invariably moved by the power of the music at some point in the course of the evening - such is the genius of Richard Strauss. And when one is fortunate enough to encounter an Ariadne of such high musical values as the current COC revival, what's not to love?

Forced to miss opening night after having caught a cold from her daughter, Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka bounced back quickly to sing on May 3, the second of the eight-performance run. Ariadne is a role full of musical and dramatic contrasts and represents a real challenge for the soprano. In the Prologue she is the diva with her nose in the air; in the Opera she is transformed into a tragic figure, an abandoned woman, lonely and bereft, wishing for death. The Prima Donna only has a few lines to sing in the Prologue and must make her impression mostly through acting. Pieczonka was every inch the haughty diva, funny but not over-the-top. In the Prologue, both the soprano and tenor are one-dimensional characters - it's in the Opera that the two leads get to shine. Pieczonka's full lyric soprano is ideally suited to Ariadne, and there was much to enjoy in her luminous performance. Other than a somewhat cautious approach to the high pianissimos in "Ein schoenes war", there was no sign of indisposition, the voice ringing out securely with its trademark gleaming tone. The high B in the opening of "Es gibt ein Reich" was glorious. She threw herself into the role and sang a moving final duet with tenor Richard Margison (Bacchus). Like on opening night, Margison was again in stentorian voice, singing with burnished tone and giving unstintingly in the extended duet that lasted almost 25 minutes.

Soprano Jane Archibald sang a delightful "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," hitting those high E's with ease while doing all the extra stage business for herself and the comedians - if only the audience for once would hold their applause until the end! British mezzo Alice Coote offered a passionate and creamy-voiced Komponist, if just a touch too manic in her stage manner. To be sure there are plenty of comic moments in the Prologue, but Armfield's staging is just too slapstick - for example, is it really necessary in the Vorspiel to have Harlequin (well sung and gamely acted by baritone Peter Barrett) figuratively playing a dog and urinating on the leg of the Officer (Roger Honeywell) within 30 seconds of the curtain going up? Many reviewers have commented on the strangely distressed look of the sets for the Opera, but it no longer bothers me - maybe as a friend suggested, "Der reichste Mann in Wien must have been on a strict budget!" Ever the consummate Straussian, Sir Andrew Davis led the COC forces with a knowing hand. Except for a few shaky moments from the horns, the orchestra was in top form, with the strings and woodwinds sounding particularly full and luscious.

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