Ariadne auf Naxos is a strange operatic beast. It starts off with a cute idea but doesn’t develop it consistently, and even Richard Strauss’ undeniable genius as a composer fails to keep it from sailing into the doldrums near the end of the performance.
The Fort Worth Opera opened the work as the final entry in its regular season Saturday night in Bass Hall. The company succeeded where Strauss succeeded, but it never cleared the doldrums at the end of what seemed a long evening despite what the clock said about its length (about 21/2 hours, short by operatic standards).
Ariadne auf Naxos is a comedy set in the house of the richest man in 18th-century Vienna. To entertain his high society guests, he hires a group of musicians to present an opera seria, and a troupe of comedians to follow up with some improvised high jinks. A fireworks show will bring the entertainment to a close.
The rich man decides that the proposed show is going to go on too long (the fireworks must fire on time), so he orders the opera performers and the comedians to perform simultaneously. How this hybrid opera seria comedy act works out is the source of considerable mirth.
The first three-quarters of Saturday night’s performance was by far the most entertaining. Audrey Luna as Zerbinetta, the head of the comedy troupe, and her fellow funnymen Steven Eddy, Zac Engle, Anthony Reed and Michael Porter were lively in voice and deed, and played well off the musicians and the household staff. Zerbinetta gets the most spectacular number in the opera, a long, highly acrobatic tune liberally sprinkled with high notes. Luna sailed easily through this obstacle course, winning an ecstatic audience reaction.
The comedians didn’t have it all. Cecelia Hall as the composer, Stephen Lusmann as the music teacher and William V. Madison as the major domo scored points among those in the evening’s lengthy list of vocalists.
The first part of the second half has the two troupes performing together, with the comedians making pungent commentary about the more serious types. However, when the latter get down to serious business, the comedians drop out and languor soon sets in. One keeps hoping that Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, will send in the clowns once more, but the performance trudges on. A final brief appearance by Zerbinetta and her latest lover adds little.
Marjorie Owens and Corey Bix in the rather thankless roles of Ariadne and Bacchus failed to raise performance temperatures much. On the other hand, Jeni Houser, Amanda Robie and Corrie Donovan as the three Wagnerian-reminiscent nymphs added value.
The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, under Joe Illick, gave strong backing to the soloists. Stage director David Gately’s work was effective, and the scenery of Robin Vest, brilliant with color in some comedy scenes, was a powerful plus. The projected fireworks proved a fitting conclusion.
Ariadne auf Naxos will be repeated Sunday at Bass Hall. It is performed in German with English titles.