Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Ariadne" - The Essence of Divine Music

Robert Frankenberry and Elizabeth Baldwin in "Ariadne on Naxos" Photo Credit Patti Brahim
    It’s all too infrequent that a work of art is able to grab you so strongly that the emotional intensity it engenders sets of a set of electrical impulses that rise through the chakras of the spinal column and exit the head creating  a sense of rapture. When the experience does occur, it’s quite salient and downright pleasurable.
One such experience bowled me over again during Friday evening’s opera performance of "Ariadne on Naxos" currently getting a staging by the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh. Ironically, it came in Act Two after I’d been only ho-hummed by the opening first half comic shenanigans that sets up the subsequent blissful musical conjurations penned by Richard Strauss, a composer Canadian pianist Glenn Gould cited as "the greatest musical figure" of the 20th Century.
Without sounding too New Age in my references to chakras, I was quite unprepared for the evening’s musical magic. With close to 200 live operas, maybe more, to my credit, "Ariadne" was not one I’d seen before. I went into the theater on Friday an "Ariadne" virgin and came out spent, aesthetically speaking.
Size does matter, and, in the case of this production, small and intimate wins out over large and grandiose. It’s amazing what can be done on a space-limited stage and with minimal set resources but with a fine cast of singers and a scaled down, but lush-sounding and expressive orchestra under the masterful baton of conductor Brent McMunn.
The evening’s biggest asset was Strauss and his post-Wagnerian sensibility that somehow manages, in "Ariadne," to wed comedia dell’arte slapstick with high art aesthetics in an improbable but intriguing plot. Just as the sound track of a top rated horror film can keep the adrenaline flowing with stressful angst over a prolonged period, Strauss’ music for "Ariadne’ has the opposite effect - an exalted immersion in a cloud of beauty and tranquillity that has more emotional curative power than ten sessions with a shrink.
As the title character, Elizabeth Baldwin sang with  a confident vocal opulence and played both the parts of the abandoned lover of Act Two and the haughty opera diva of the prologue with convincing realism. As Bacchus, the god who transforms her lachrymose desolation into a new reason to live, tenor Robert Frankenberry had the vocal fire to spark to the musical mix into lofty territory, and Erika Hennings, cast in the breeches role of the Composer, sings with idealistic fervor that captures the aesthetic aspirations of the naively visionary artist.

Elizabeth Fischborn as Zerbinetta Photo Credit Patti Brahim

The real star of the production turned out to be Elizabeth Fischborn, the pert and frivolous dancing girl, Zerbinetta, in act one that becomes a vocal, charismatic powerhouse in act two. Diminutive in statue but long in talent, Fischborn makes the lengthy, stamina-testing obstacle course of an aria, ‘Grossmachtige Prinzessin, wer verstunde,’ nicht, sung in English as are all OTP productions, seem as effortless as singing a lullaby.
As consoling nymphs, Leigh Tomlinson, Amelia Jardon and Bethany Worrell provided some lovely lyrical harmonies and added a good deal visual flourishes with their almost choreographed movement and gestures and demonstrative facial expressions. As harlequins, Errin Brooks, Eric Lindsey and Benjamin Taylor nourished the opera with a hefty soupcon of slapstick, not to mention accomplished singing. Especially impressive was Taylor’s sonorous baritone and magnetic stage presence that should take this young 26-year old from Baltimore onward to a successful operatic career.
A word must also be said for the fine work of costume designer, Cynthia Albert, who robed the cast in creative costumes not only in "Ariadne" but even more so in "The Merry Widow," another of OTP’s 2014 Summerfest offerings.
On the way out of the theater, I mentioned to artistic director, Jonathan Eaton, who also directed the production, what an emotionally cleansing effect the opera had on me. He seemed pleased and understanding - despite my silly talk of chakras and such.
"Ariadne of Naxos" is at the Twentieth Century Club, 2401 Bigelow Blvd in Pittsburgh’s Oakland section at 2 p.m. on July 20 and at 7:30 p.m. on July 26. Phone 412 326-9687.

Zerbinetta and Players Photo Credit Patti Brahim

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