- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

With shabby-chic sets by Erhard Rom, witty direction by Thaddeus Strassberger and sharp conducting by Timothy Long, the Wolf Trap Opera Company’s wacky new production of Richard Strauss‘ “Ariadne auf Naxos” (“Ariadne on Naxos”) is an engaging, theatrically over-the-top showcase for the company’s incredibly talented young singers.

“Ariadne” was composed as vocal and incidental music to accompany a 1912 adaptation of Moliere’s comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” (“The Bourgeois Gentleman”) penned by Strauss’ favorite librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The result proved far too lengthy, however. So Hofmannsthal persuaded the composer to transform the initial music into a surreal opera that debuted in 1916.

This final version is still a kitchen-sink affair, structurally echoing the satirical decadence of Strauss’ earlier “Salome” (1905) and “Der Rosenkavalier” (1911). Both foreshadowed, in different ways, the ongoing decline and fall of 19th-century Europe. But “Ariadne” deconstructs things even more.

The opera’s lengthy “Prologue” whisks us backstage, where a haughty ensemble of opera singers and a gaggle of goofy cabaret entertainers, hired to entertain the guests of a wealthy patron, are embroiled in a hot dispute. With more money than sense, their employer orders the separate opera and vaudeville shows to be combined into one entertainment so as not to delay the scheduled evening fireworks. Neither troupe is amused, nor is the hapless composer who must hastily rearrange his score while swallowing his artistic integrity.

The result: Act II, “The Opera,” during which the trimmed-down operatic tragedy of Ariadne is trashed by the vaudevillians, who sabotage the show with bawdy Marx Brothers-style slapstick. Add theatrical in-jokes here and a musical sendup of Wagner’s “Ring” cycle there, and you get the picture: a maddening jumble of high and low art with no clear winners.

The Prologue allocates its best vocal moments to the hapless Composer - a trouser role sung with force and passion by mezzo Elizabeth De Shong - and to her highly supportive vocal coach, skillfully realized by baritone James J. Kee. Tenor Rodell Rosel adds piquancy to the mix with his outrageous portrayal of the company’s “Dance Captain.”

After a well-timed intermission, “The Opera” focuses on suicidal Ariadne (soprano Marjorie Owens) - abandoned on a desert isle by the hero Theseus after she has helped him kill the fearsome Minotaur - and her replacement lover, the god Bacchus (tenor Diego Torre) who shows up just in time to save her. Both Miss Owens and Mr. Torre possess instruments of astonishing range, power and expressiveness, singing Strauss’ surging, romantic lines with great conviction while still conveying an understanding of the music’s satirical intent.

The vaudeville troupe also gets to shine in “The Opera,” undercutting high seriousness with comic and vocal shtick. Particularly notable during Saturday’s opening performance was the nimble soprano instrument of Erin Morley whose worldly-wise Zerbinetta proves the perfect foil to the grander egos in “The Opera.”

Aiding and abetting Miss Morley are the female ensemble of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo (sung by Anne-Carolyn Bird, Jamie VanEyck, and Leena Chopra); and their male counterparts, Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Brighella and Truffaldino (Joshua Jeremiah, Steven Sanders, Beau Gibson and Liam Moran).

In short, if you enjoy cabaret and opera, this delicious production of “Ariadne” has it all. Don’t miss it.

★★★½

WHAT: Wolf Trap Opera Company presents Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday

WHERE: The Barns at Wolf Trap, Vienna

TICKETS: $68

INFORMATION: Call 877/965-3872, or visit www.wolftrap.org.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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