★★½☆☆ A valiant effort and some accomplished voices, but a lack of resources make for a threadbare experience.

Hawthorn Arts Centre, Melbourne
April 2, 2016

Dreaming big is a wonderful thing, but when it comes to programming, being a realist is as important as having ambition. Citiopera’s threadbare staging of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos is a case in point, where a conspicuous lack of resources has resulted in a production that is ultimately unflattering for both the cast and the score.

As director Stella Axarlis noted in her introductory address on opening night, Ariadne is staged less often than other Strauss operas, such as Elektra or Der Rosenkavalier, but there are worthy riches here nonetheless, both musical and narrative. It’s highly original, whimsical plot may be a bit discombobulating at times, but it remains perennially relevant to anyone familiar with the backstage drama of staging an opera.

A Prologue offers a wry farce about a planned evening of entertainment, privately commissioned by a wealthy, unseen benefactor for a lavish soiree he is hosting. Two productions have been ordered: one is an operatic tragedy based on Greek antiquity, while the other is a rip-roaring commedia dell’arte. However, the chalk and cheese of these two productions are unceremoniously jammed together when the evening’s proceedings are derailed by an overrunning dinner. Despite the protestations of the pretentious young composer, compounded by the devil-may-care flippancy of the bawdy comedians, this bizarre hybrid of Greek Tragedy and Italianate slap-stick is reluctantly attempted.

Kristen Leich

Comedy ensues, or rather it should have, but there is an insistently rudderless feel to this staging that fails to peel back the layers of this multifaceted work. There is, of course, the obvious conflict between the profound and profane, firstly in the Prologue with its beleaguered young composer and then in the “Opera” with its quirky counterpoint between the coquettish brass of Zerbettina and the morose hyperbole of Ariadne. But beneath this narrative crust is a rich vein of subtext to mine, exploring the curious artifice of the opera within an opera or the juxtaposition of opposing narrative philosophies. In this instance, sadly, the audinece missed out on a more nuanced or incisive reading for one that merely stated the plot, verbatim. Strauss’s score is also a useful compass, shifting from one emotional realm to the next at a breakneck pace. The surging energy of these mercurial textures strongly insinuate the dynamic of the onstage action, but more often than not, these musical cues for clear direction went unanswered.

The set also suffered from some frustrating shortcuts, relying on a static projected backdrop that was often bleached-out by unsympathetic lighting. Low budgets are an obvious culprit here, and indeed, major presentations of this opera can boast some seriously expensive sets. On the other hand, this is an opera about staging an opera, so ironically, having a completely bare stage, with its undressed fixtures and fittings on display, may have been preferable to the jarringly two-dimensional solution offered here.

While there may be some shortcomings, Citiopera’s mission is to provide a platform for emerging opera professionals, and as a showcase for local singing talent, there are some superb voices to enjoy. Kristen Leich as the Composer, brings an impressive flexibility and natural charisma to this account, moving through the itinerant wordiness of the recitatives to the gorgeous lyricism of the arias with ease. Sadly, little attempt was made to disguise Leich’s femininity, so the gender (and sexuality) of this young male character was unfortunately burdened by a confusing ambiguity. Raphael Wong as the Music Master was also a reliable presence both musically and dramatically, showing a compelling rapport with Leich’s Composer that provided a sturdy anchor for the Prologue.

In the second act’s Opera, Michael Lampard’s Harlekin was well-voiced and sensuously characterised, offering a cocky machismo that stood him apart from the buffoonery of the other clowns. Henry Choo’s Bacchus was, for my money at least, the greatest discovery of the evening. A robust yet pliant tenor who displayed both power and restraint, Choo’s regal gait perfectly match the nobility of portraying this Greek deity.

(L-R) James Moffat, Michael Lampard, Tamzyn Alexander and Daniel Sinfield

Other roles were less assured, most notably Tamzyn Alexander’s Zerbinetta, which carried a beautiful tone in the lower ranges, but was over taxed in the challenging coloratura bel canto pastiche of the second act. Wendy Grose was vocally confident as the Primadonna and Ariadne, but the characterisation was often rather wooden and lacking in the heartrending emotional agony that should provide the most conspicuous foil for the lusty tomfoolery of the comedy troupe.

Largely the accompanying orchestra, conducted by Dr David Kram, were fluent in their articulation of Strauss’s texturally boisterous score, but again, a lack of adequate resources left some problematic blemishes on this account. Particularly disappointing was the use of an unforgivably artificial sounding keyboard to fill in some of the gaps left in the pared down orchestration, and througout there were moments where drowned out singers deserved a greater level of sensitivity. 

On paper, the desire to stage an opera of this scale is highly laudable, and as far as effort is concerned, this cast gives Ariadne auf Naxos a red hot go. However, it’s perhaps important to note that Strauss’s first 1912 rendering of this opera was deemed financially insurmountable, and even his 1916 revision, seen here, makes casting demands that are tremendous. With 16 singers, seven supernumeraries, an orchestra of 20 musicians, a conductor plus the technical crew, it’s difficult not to wonder if a different, less personnel-heavy work would have been a more savvy choice for this not-for-profit organisation. Companies like Citiopera are essential to the vibrancy of Australia’s opera scene, but staging repertoire that can be convincingly realised would make this contribution all the more valuable.

Citiopera present Ariadne auf Naxos, at the Hawthorn Arts Centre, until April 10.