Ariadne in the Berkshires
by Barbara Waldinger
As the summer of 2018 draws to a close, with the BSO gone and Tanglewood showcasing pop singers, Berkshire classical music-lovers have something to cheer about: the Berkshire Opera Festival (BOF) has opened its second season with a magnificent production of Ariadne auf Naxos, conducted by Brian Garman (Artistic Director and Co-Founder of the BOF) and directed by Jonathon Loy (General Director and Co-Founder).
These two gentlemen are well-credentialed. Garman, conductor at the Seattle Opera and Music Director of their Young Artists Program, spent ten years as Resident Conductor and Chorus Master at Pittsburgh Opera and has conducted for the New York City Opera, while Loy is entering his ninth season as a Guest Director at the Metropolitan Opera in NYC, having previously served as General Director of Center City Opera Theater in Philadelphia. After a year auditioning and establishing the BOF Orchestra and Chorus, Garman and Loy mounted Madama Butterfly in 2016. Already cast for 2018: Rigoletto.
In accordance with their aim to explore work outside the “top ten” opera repertory, this summer Garman and Loy selected Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos with a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal (with English supertitles by Cori Ellison), who was inspired by Moliere’s play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. In the first, unsuccessful version of this entertainment, Hofmannsthal adapted Moliere’s play, replacing the final scene (a Turkish ceremony) with the new opera Ariadne auf Naxos. Unfortunately, that production, directed by Max Reinhardt in 1912, lasted six hours and was a fiasco. But in the second version, premiered in 1916, Moliere’s play was scrapped and Strauss created a Prologue, which is now the first act of Ariadne auf Naxos. Loy sets this unusual prologue in the present day, when the “richest man in Vienna,” invites both an opera company and a troupe of comedians to entertain his dinner guests, with fireworks following the presentations. However, when the meal lasts longer than planned, in order to allow time for the fireworks, he two companies are required to perform simultaneously.
This sounds chaotic. The opera company has prepared a serious new piece, Ariadne auf Naxos, which tells the tragic story of the mythological Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the desert island of Naxos. How can this mesh with the slapstick, acrobatic, low-class popular amusement of the Commedia dell’arte –Italian improvisational theatre originating in the 16th century that greatly influenced Moliere? The young composer of the opera (Adriana Zabala in a trouser role) can barely contain his anger, despite the attempts of his music teacher (Kyle Pfortmiller) and the Commedia’s leading lady, Zerbinetta (Nicole Haslett), to convince him to make changes in the opera so as to work this out. Thus ends the first act, filled with comedy, hysteria and high dudgeon. The second act is the opera itself, during which the comedians appear on Naxos and do their best to cheer up the dying Ariadne (Marcy Stonikas).
This mixture of low and high art is a tall order for an opera, presenting challenges for its composer and lyricist, conductor and musicians, actors, designers and director. Additionally, the orchestra and the performers share the stage of the Colonial Theatre, so that the performance space is only one-half the stage. Loy meets the challenge by using the multi-level stage vertically, rather than horizontally, so that the action makes use of the unadorned upstage area as well as the apron and the aisles. Assisted by chorographer Sara Erde, Loy recreates the physical comedy routines of the Commedia actors. Production elements undergo a complete change as the action moves from backstage in Act I to the opera proper in Act II. Costumes for the first act, designed by Charles Caine, include robes, sweats and even underwear as the actors prepare, contrasting with both the graceful and flowing pastel gowns worn by Ariadne and her lovely, mellifluous nymphs, and the colorful costumes and masks of the Commedia’s stock characters in the second act. (Even conductor Garman dons a jacket for the opera after working in shirtsleeves for the prologue). For Act II, which takes place in a cave, Scenic designer Stephen Dobay has created a gorgeous painted backdrop of stalactites and stalagmites, complete with twinkling stars and a hanging crescent moon, all lit to perfection by John Froelich. A similar metal frame flown in further downstage brings Ariadne on her rock as close to the audience as possible. Finally the orchestration evolves from a “play with music” that contains spoken words, to a melodious opera, beautifully played by only thirty-seven musicians.
The quality of the singing is astounding. Garman and Loy have assembled a dazzling cast, including the three brilliant leading female singers: Zabala as the composer, Haslett as Zerbinetta performing her amazing coloratura aria in the second act, and Stonikas as Ariadne.
The Prologue is great fun, though I found the role of the producer (Chuck Schwager), who announces the wishes of the wealthy patron, to be a bit jarring. Here we have the present day setting: he mocks Trump in New York-ese. Somehow the music master responds to him by singing in German!
The second act is slow-going and although the comedians’ antics are meant to liven things up, there is not much they can do, except tip-toe into this grave opera with their crazy antics (including a rubber chicken!) unseen by Ariadne and her nymphs. Only Zerbinetta, with her common sense approach, can explain Ariadne’s tragedy by letting us know that what the young woman needs is a new lover. Ironically, Zerbinetta turns out to be prescient, as the god Bacchus turns up, is immediately smitten, and escorts the equally lovestruck Ariadne to the heavens.
How fortunate that Garman and Loy have founded their company here in the Berkshires. No longer need we confine our opera-going to HD films—now we have the highest quality productions and performers in our own backyard.
Ariadne auf Naxos plays on August 26, 29, and September 1 at The Colonial Theatre. For tickets call 413-997-4444 or online at www.berkshireoperafestival.org
Berkshire Opera Festival presents Ariadne auf Naxos; Music by Richard Strauss; Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Cast: Kyle Pfortmiller (a Music Teacher), Chuck Schwager (the Producer), John Demler (an Usher), Daniel Kringer (an Officer), Adriana Zabala (the Composer), Kevin Ray (the Tenor/Bacchus), Brandon Hetherington (a Wigmaker), Nicole Haslett (Zerbinetta), Spencer Viator (a Dancing Master/Brighella), Marcy Stonikas (the Prima Donna/Ariadne), Jeni Houser (Najade), Rebecca Ringle (Dryade),Christine Lyons (Echo),Samuel Schultz (Harlekin), Chris Carr (Scaramuccio), Matthew Scollin (Truffaldino). Conductor: Brian Garman, Director: Jonathon Loy; Scenic Designer: Stephen Dobay; Costume Designer: Charles Caine; Lighting Designer: John Froelich; Hair and Make-up Designer: Beckie Kravetz; Choreographer: Sara Erde; Stage Manager: Cindy Knight. Running Time: two hours 25 minutes, including intermission, at The Colonial Theatre, 111 South Street, Pittsfield, MA, from August 26, closing September 1.