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A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Michael Cooper)
A scene from the Canadian Opera Company production of "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Michael Cooper)

Music: Opera review

COC Ariadne soars with understudy Add to ...

Like a playoff team with a swelling disabled list, the Canadian Opera Company had to go to its bench on Saturday, and still came up with a winning effort. An undisclosed illness took soprano Adrianne Pieczonka off the roster for the opening performance of Ariadne auf Naxos, propelling understudy Amber Wagner into a title role for which she was more than ready.

It was a shame to lose Pieczonka, a Canadian star we don't get to hear often enough, but also a treat to encounter a gifted young singer before the whole opera world knows about her. Wagner, a recent alumna of Chicago Lyric Opera's ensemble program, filled up her challenging part with a rich dramatic soprano, expressive line, and developing stage presence.

Ariadne is, in a way, an opera about backstage mishaps. The richest man in Vienna has engaged a serious opera company and a comic troupe to perform after his dinner party, and decides at the last minute to have them go on stage simultaneously.

Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal use this mash-up scenario to animate an affectionate satire of opera stereotypes. The piece is both a send-up of, and tribute to, metaphysical German opera and Italian comedy.

Director Neil Armfield staged the largely comic prologue in Dale Ferguson's realistic modern-day backstage set, where the egos of those engaged by the unseen moneybags scraped amusingly against each other. This prologue is a real ensemble piece, and came off in nearly ideal fashion, with sharply drawn portrayals by all. Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote fretted very effectively as the Composer whose work was about to be raped, and warmed beautifully to the character's salute to music as a sacred art - though even this moment had its comic, erotic undertone. Baritone Richard Stilwell, looking rather like Strauss in later years, gave a nimble portrayal of the principled yet realistic music master, in spite of a rather choppy delivery.

I was mystified by Ferguson's set for "the Opera" (the show as delivered to the rich man's guests): dirty-beige scenic cloths with big rips in them. Perhaps we were to see these as the tatty equipment brought to the rich man's house by the impoverished opera types. If so, I'm not sure this drab realism (extended also to some of the costuming) was successful, especially when coupled with Armfield's deliberately stiff direction of the act's serious-opera segments. He seemed to have sided too strongly with Zerbinetta, the Italian comedienne who opines in the prologue that the Composer's opera is sure to be a bore.

Soprano Jane Archibald, battling an announced chest infection, nonetheless sailed through Zerbinetta's massive and elaborate set-piece in the second half better than would many singers in perfect health. She capered amusingly (with help from choreographer Denni Sayers) with a well-balanced quartet of suitors: tenors John Easterlin (Brighella, as well as the tartly funny dancing master in the prologue) and Christopher Enns (Scaramuccio), baritone Peter Barrett (Harlequin) and bass Michael Uloth (Truffaldino). Richard Margison sang the role of Bacchus in his usual stentorian fashion, unrelieved in force even when this confused hero seemed most uncertain. The three Wagnerian dames who attend Ariadne (sopranos Simone Osborne and Teiya Kasahara and mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal) had a shaky beginning, but their initially dubious intonation improved as they went along.

Strauss's enthralled parody of Wagnerian themes is intense and multilevelled in this act, even though his orchestra has fewer than 40 players. Sir Andrew Davis led a nimble and expressive performance by the COC Orchestra, in what was, incredibly, his debut with the company.

Small roles were very capably filled by baritone Doug MacNaughton (a Lackey, whose best line was grossly mistranslated in Gunta Dreifeld's surtitles), tenor Roger Honeywell (an Officer), baritone Adrian Kramer (the Wig-maker), and actor Thomas Hauff (the Major-domo), who managed to make the word "feuerwerk" sound like a punchline. Lighting designer Tim Mitchell (whose work was recreated from the Welsh National Opera production by Paul Woodfield) managed a tentative but pretty canopy of stars at the opera's conclusion. I think it would have been wittier to follow the final clinch of Ariadne and Bacchus with a few projected bursts from the rich man's fireworks, in the manner of Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief.

Ariadne auf Naxos

  • Canadian Opera Company
  • Four Seasons Centre
  • In Toronto on Saturday

The COC's production of Ariadne auf Naxos continues through May 29.

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