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Ariadne auf Walnut Creek: sometimes our
feisty regional companies just let you down
By Mort Levine

We have some remarkable regional opera companies within easy reach. Most of the time they come forth with worthwhile endeavors. and occasionally they fall flat. One example emerged this summer when the Festival Opera of Walnut Creek's Lesher Performing Arts center presented Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmansthal.

From its inception back before WWI, this opera has been problematic. It was born out of the pressures to deliver something after the success of Der Rosenkavalier. It took some incidental music written to accompany a Moliere play about the mythic Ariadne as act two, followed by the creation of a trivial back story as a prologue to be an act one. The two parts have only the most slender relationship. But the music satisfied Strauss and his librettist created another 18th century tale to tie up the package.

Ever since there have been noble efforts to give it a true operatic life. Staging it in the lavish home of “the richest man in Vienna” during the glory days of the empire often provides enough of the “weltschmerz” to satisfy opera buffs.

Festival Opera's artistic leader, Michael Morgan, working as both conductor and stage director, instead chose a contemporary setting for the first part (sung in slangy English) and a slightly more traditional second half on the Greek island where Ariadne is exiled (sung in German). Sets were deliberately simple platforms and hangings while costumes were pretty much limited to what the singers wore to get to the theatre.

Morgan, who has been the conductor of the East Bay-Oakland Symphony for the past quarter century, has guided Festival Opera since 1996. In his program notes he explains it this way: “I am setting the piece in the current day with minimal sets, allowing nothing to be taken away from the music...the piece is a feast for the ears...wonderful cast singing gorgeous music and fun for all.”

We agree that the cast had much to recommend it. Many of the voices have been heard in other venues. Among the alumni of Opera San Jose, for example, were bass-baritone Kirk Eichelberger, tenors Roberto Perlas- Gomez and Adam Flowers, mezzo Bettany Coffland, soprano Sara Duchovnay and baritone Daniel Cilli. A remarkable colorature soprano, Othalie Graham took on the challenging role of Ariadne. The sprightly Shawnette Sulker sang Zerbinetta with her high range soprano. Mezzo Catherine Martin reprised the Composer role she had sung earlier at the Glimmerglass production in upstate New York. Normally this role is a pants role which channels Strauss himself, but Morgan's current day staging recognizes that these days we do have female composers.

That Glimmerglass production provided a translation of the Hoffmanthsthal language which liberally inserted topical references to New York and New Jersey which made the first half even more implausible than the staging.

Audience members who hope for a total experience in an opera house or even just “fun for all” come away disappointed despite the fine singing and the elegant Straussian musical offerings. There were indeed some exalting ear-feast moments sprinkled among the three hours of a desultory presentation of an operatic mash-up that calls for much more than Festival opera was prepared to give it.

(SJOG Newsletter November 2014)

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