Peabody Opera mixes serious with absurd

Review: Richard Strauss' `Ariadne auf Naxos' offers challenges.

November 17, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

With a split screen, it's technically possible to watch two TV shows simultaneously. If those shows were, say, I Love Lucy and Dragnet, the resulting fusion would be more or less akin to what happens in Richard Strauss' opera Ariadne auf Naxos.

If you added to the mix a little Monty Python's Flying Circus and South Park, you might get something akin to Peabody Opera Theatre's engaging production of Ariadne. Except that the music wouldn't be nearly as glorious.

Even played straight, the opera has plenty of zaniness. Two troupes - one expecting to perform a serious opera, the other a commedia dell'arte routine - are forced to improvise an absurd combination so that the audience can see a fireworks display on time.

Director John Lehmeyer treats both ensembles as basically comical; the three nymphs who surround Ariadne, for example, are played for laughs from the start. Much of the staging is over the top, practically guaranteed to provoke happy howls from college kids. (Within the first few minutes, we get foppery, flatulence and ample-bosomed women in their underwear.)

But Lehmeyer, who also designed the lush costumes, knows when to cut the slapstick and let the opera work its unique charms. He creates such an enchanting finale within James M. Fouchard's clever, picturesque set (elegantly lit by Douglas Nelson) that the earlier excesses are easily forgotten.

The musical challenges of Ariadne do not easily lend themselves to a conservatory-level production. The title role calls for a soprano voice of beauty and steel; the head of the comic outfit, Zerbinetta, requires another soprano with spectacular coloratura skills; the killer role of Bacchus calls for a superhuman tenor.

Peabody, with alternating casts, has met many of the challenges. Only one guest artist had to be imported - tenor Gary Rideout, who tackled the music of Bacchus Thursday evening with admirable fortitude and just a few setbacks.

As Ariadne, Lori Hultgren tended to turn strident at the top, but infused her phrases with considerable expressive weight, and fluent acting added to the performance. Marlissa Hudson was an endearing Zerbinetta and nailed the pyrotechnic aria, "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," in bright, sure tones. Christine Kavanagh Miller, as the Composer, sounded like a major Straussian singer in the making, with a sumptuous, evenly produced tone that easily soared above the orchestra.

Shannon Kiser's Harlequin was pleasantly sung; Erin Cavanaugh, Sarah Martin and Miriam Browning-Nance whooped it up as the nymphs. Ryan de Ryke relished every exaggerated line and gesture in the speaking role of the Major-Domo, even tossing in some of Monty Python's silly walks. A little toning down wouldn't hurt.

Conductor Hajime Teri Murai's sensitive account of the score and the orchestra's generally polished work capped the performance.

As for performing the opera partly in English, partly in the original German, it might have effectively differentiated the two troupes had those singing in English been more decipherable.


What: Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos

Where: Peabody Institute, 1 E. Mount Vernon Place

When: 7:30 tonight, 3 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $8 to $22

Call: 410-659-8100, Ext. 2

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