- Associated Press - Sunday, August 14, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - The downsizing of the city’s No. 2 opera company is shining a brighter light on the many smaller troupes that have taken fragile root in New York City’s cultural soil.

One such group, the Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble, is presenting a brief summer season, consisting of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” and Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” The “Ariadne,” especially, is an impressive display of what can be accomplished on a tiny budget.

For decades, the New York City Opera provided a place for up-and-coming singers who sometimes went on to major careers, often at the Metropolitan Opera. But financial problems have driven the NYCO from its Lincoln Center home, and its future is uncertain.

Meanwhile, scrappy companies like Dell’Arte, which was founded in 2000, offer a valuable opportunity for young performers, many of them just out of school. They don’t get paid for their work, but they do get a chance to learn new roles, receive intensive coaching _ and, best of all, perform in front of a live audience.

On Friday night, a talented cast working on a nearly bare stage in a rented space in the East Village made “Ariadne” come to life more buoyantly than it sometimes does in major houses with lavish sets.

The first half of the performance, the opera’s prologue, was especially engaging. Director Benjamin Spierman created sharp interactions among the characters as they made backstage preparations for an entertainment at the estate of the richest man in Vienna. If the evening’s second half was less enthralling, that’s partly the fault of Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for stretching out some of the material to the point of tedium.

Almost everyone showed vocal promise. As the Composer, mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel sang with fire and allure; soprano Mary Ann Stewart displayed a big, rich voice as Ariadne, and coloratura Jennifer Moore handled Zerbinetta’s vocal acrobatics with aplomb _ though her simpering portrayal was ill-advised. As Bacchus, tenor Shawn Thuris managed some heroic high notes with only occasional signs of strain.

It helped that Strauss wrote “Ariadne” for a reduced orchestra, allowing the 11 musicians assembled under conductor Christopher Fecteau’s baton to provide a reasonable facsimile of the score.

That wasn’t quite the case Thursday, when a different ensemble led by Samuel McCoy sounded underpowered in a transcription of Mozart’s opera. And despite a program note promising an interpretation that emphasized the work’s Masonic symbolism, director Susan Gonzalez offered little more than characters shuttling on and off stage.

Best among the “Flute” singers was soprano Sable Rivera, who brought a pleasant light lyric sound and an infectious charm to the small role of Papagena.

Both operas will play again next weekend with almost entirely different casts. For the audience, it’s a chance to support aspiring singers just launching their careers _ and maybe to hear some who will go on to make names for themselves.

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