By R.M. Campbell
Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” is a opera with many, sometimes opposing, characteristics. It is deft and sophisticated, a piece intended for refined tastes. High art is forced to mingle with low art, each looking unfavorably upon the other.
With the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program spring production, which opened Thursday night at Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, the opera seems even more madcap than usual with the forces of the low made particularly engaging. Indeed, they appear to win the day in this fictitious battle.
The pit at Meydenbauer is small but served the purposes of this first-class training ground for young artists well enough in the past. However, for Strauss, it proved to be inadequate unless one dropped the keyboard instruments, including a piano, and two harps, as well as any number of strings, something both conductor Brian Garman, music director of the program, and stage director Peter Kazaras, artistic director of the program, were loathe to do. So, they brought the orchestra up onto the stage. Not center stage but off in the precincts of stage right. Set designer Donald Eastman had to work around that , not an easy assignment. He wrapped a grand flight of stairs on stage left, leading to a mezzanine He also devised an entry to the pit from the stage upon which more intimate scenes could be played, an area unavailable if an orchestra had been in residence. This two and one-half level playing space itself became dramatic, its spareness a virtue.
Strauss was generous in giving effective musical opportunities to Ariadne and Bacchus. They are provided some magnificent music to sing, as befits their godlike status. The Composer, likewise, has effective music to sing. Nevertheless, Zerbinetta and her band of merry hipsters take the day with their antics, poking fun at the seriousness of everyone else. They are so convincing that we begin to see the world from their perspective. Ariadne and Bacchus are wonderfully noble but a little pretentious. Bacchus becomes pompous and Ariadne, obsessive.
Kazaras keeps everyone moving, on and off the stage, with fast steps and even somersaults. Each makes his or her point then moves on. Kazaras has become a superb stage director with plenty of ideas and inventions. One has come to expect them and rarely are we disappointed. He has keen intelligence and dramatic and comedic flair. Fortunately he has a group of young singers who are able to move quickly and decisively. Ariadne and Bacchus less so but that adds to their sense of importance. They are what Zerbinetta thinks they are. This clash of opposites is what Strauss prescribes. “Ariadne” can seem a little heavy, but not this time. It has the lightness of air.
Just as Kazaras was dextrous in his sensibilities, so was Garman. The orchestra, even though it was substantially reduced in numbers, was not reduced in its impact. And, in part because it was on stage, the ensemble had genuine presence. It is a capable group of musicians, who play together regularly as members of the Auburn Symphony.
Some of the singers were more persuasive theatrically than vocally. Vira Slywotzky played the Composer in an appealing way, earnest and youthful. Her soprano’s steeliness might be put to better uses but it worked because Slywotzky made it so. Gregory Carroll’s Bacchus was a singer with presence, in part because of his physical size but also because of his big voice, which usually stayed in the forte range. Megan Hart had plenty of bounce for Zerbinetta, and certainly all the high notes, but the voice is not a lyrical instrument. Marcy Stonikas has plenty of cream to give to Ariadne and long, lovely phrases. Stephanos Tsirakoglou and Michael Devlin, as the Music Teacher and Major-Domo, were very amusing. So too the Naiad, Dryad and Echo of Joanna Foote, Jenni Bank and Jennifer Edwards. The trio of young men — Harlequin Truffaldino and Scaramuccio — who accompany Zerbinetta everywhere and find much to mock in Bacchus and Ariadne were played with the supple energy by Michael Krzankowski, Erik Anstine and Bray Wilkins.
The production runs through April 11.