Ariadne auf Naxos Press

“Winter Opera St. Louis spreads wings with ‘Ariadne’”

Sarah Bryan Miller, Post-Dispatch

January 27, 2012


Now in its fifth season, Winter Opera St. Louis is stretching beyond its Italianate roots. With Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos,” seen Friday night at the St. Louis Women’s Club, WOSL took on its first German opera. The production underlined both the strengths and weaknesses of Gina Galati’s young company.

Soprano Meredith Hoffmann-Thomson’s Prima Donna/Ariadne has the goods for this demanding role, with a big, soaring voice that never stinted with the high notes. She has fine acting skills, moving effortlessly from the Prima Donna’s easily affronted hauteur to Ariadne’s heartfelt grief, and she looked beautiful.

Scott Six, the Tenor/Bacchus, has an important voice, and sang with clear stentorian tones. Sarah Heltzel, the Composer, has a gorgeous instrument and was a believably angst-ridden young man. Soprano Mary Thorne brought the requisite knowing sexiness, effortless coloratura runs and solid acting skills to the role of Zerbinetta.

The comic quartet – John-Andrew Fernandez as Harlequin, Charles Martinez as Scaramuccio, Zack Rabin as Truffaldino and Jon Garrett as Brighella – were done up as the Marx Brothers in this 1930s-update and had some nice in-character comic bits. Fernandez, appropriately handsome and swaggering, sang well; Garrett’s and Rubin’s duel with conductor Timothy Semanik was a hoot. Most of the other roles in this ensemble opera were well-done.

The women’s trio of Naiad, Dryad and Echo was poorly cast. The voices of Megan Higgins, Sara Gottman and Rachel L. Smith didn’t blend, and Smith, in the pivotal middle part, had intonation and timing issues.

The auditorium of the Women’s Club is a problematic venue; there’s no pit, putting the orchestra literally in the audience’s collective face. The instrumentalists were not up to the standard of the singers, with far too many wrong notes and harsh sounds. Semanik provided good singing tempos.

Director Marie Allyn King had some great ideas, and some that weren’t so great. Leaving a grand piano on one side of the tiny stage was among the latter; so was bringing back characters from the Prologue to gawk and interact in the Opera. Most of costumer Teresa Doggett’s designs worked; those of the nymphs underlined their other difficulties.


“Comedy is King in Winter Opera’s ‘Ariadne’”

Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX

January 28, 2012


Winter Opera’s ambitious production of Strauss’s seriocomic “Ariadne auf Naxos” is impressive, given the size of the cast and intellectual complexity of the piece.

The combination of mythological drama and bel canto–style comedy may be a bit of a stretch for the fledgling company, but ultimately the problems are more with the material itself and the venue than with the performance.

“Ariadne auf Naxos” is an odd duck by any standard. It was originally written as a one-act postlude to a German translation by Strauss’s frequent collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal of Moliere’s comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme” in 1912. The difficulty and expense of mounting a play and an opera on the same bill eventually forced Strauss and Hofmannsthal to produce a rewrite that allowed the opera to stand on its own. It was first performed in 1916 and has been in circulation ever since.

The comic Prologue sets up the situation: the “richest man in Vienna” has engaged both a production of the tragic opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” and acommedia dell’arte troupe as after-dinner entertainment for his guests. To save time, he decrees that both shows must take place simultaneously. The performers can work out the details. The resulting conflicts between the opera company’s Composer, Music Master, Prima Donna, and Tenor on one side and Zerbinetta and her group of buffoons on the other generate plenty of laughs, most of them at the expense of the self-important composer and his egotistical leading lady.

After intermission, we see the hybrid opera within an opera set up in the Prologue. Abandoned on Naxos, Ariadne (with the help of three nymphs) yearns for death, but her lamentations are repeatedly interrupted by Zerbinetta and company, who are determined to cheer her up. Drama eventually wins out, however, when Bacchus arrives, declares his love, and joins Ariadne in a long, rapturous love duet.

The opera within an opera has been a bit of a problem from the beginning. At least one early British critic, for example, found the scene with Bacchus to be tedious. My view is that getting the audience to take Ariadne seriously is a tough sell, considering how effective Strauss and Hofmannsthal have been at making fun of the pretensions of operatic tragedy. Strauss’s music shifts the mood appropriately, but you still need fully committed and compelling performances by Ariadne and Bacchus to pull off that big a change in tone.

Winter Opera has a pair of strong voices in soprano Meredith Hoffman-Thompson and tenor Scott Six, but neither of them were particularly convincing in that final scene. Ms. Hoffman-Thompson’s stock theatrical gestures, which work so well when Ariadne is a foil for Zerbinetta and company, felt out of place here, and Mr. Six seemed not to be acting at all. They made beautiful music, but I don’t think that’s enough to compensate for the problem Strauss and Hofmannsthal have created.

Comedy is king in this “Ariadne”. Soprano Mary Thorne wowed the crowd with her coloratura fireworks and was convincingly seductive in her scenes with the terribly serious young Composer, a “pants” role sung with appropriate intensity by mezzo Sarah Heltzel. As Zerbinetta’s four clowns, John-Andrew Fernandez, Charles Martinez, Zach Rabin, and Jon Garrett impressed with their fine quartet singing and physical comedy. Director Marie Allyn King’s decision to make them into the four Marx Brothers, complete with choreography lifted from “Duck Soup”, was an inspired one.

Baritone Eric McCluskey was all wisdom, authority, and precise diction as the Music Master. His scenes with Philip Touchette’s pompous Major-Domo (a spoken role) set the comic tone for the “Prologue” nicely. The voices of Megan Higgins, Sara Gottman, and Rachel L. Smith blended beautifully as Ariadne’s long-suffering nymphs.

The costumes by Teresa Doggett (a.k.a. The Hardest-Working Woman in Show Biz) were unfailingly appropriate, and I loved the Marx Brothers outfits. Rebecca Hatelid is credited with the English supertitles, which are easily visible above the stage. The translation struck me as a bit clumsy, but it did the job.

Conductor Timothy Semanik’s small orchestra (20 players vs. the 30 or more Strauss calls for) had a surprisingly big sound, some opening night intonation issues aside. There were certainly balance issues with the singers, but fewer than I would have expected given then physical limitations of the venue.

Speaking of which: “Ariadne” is being staged in the opulent second-floor ballroom of The St. Louis Woman’s Club, a converted 1895 mansion at 4600 Lindell in the Central West End. Given that the opera takes place in the ballroom of a mansion, that adds a bit of extra-musical resonance, especially when you consider that there’s an optional dinner preceding the show downstairs. The downside is that the orchestra has to be placed on the ballroom floor in front of the stage, with the audience behind them on freestanding chairs. There are no risers, so sightlines are a problem for all but the first few rows.

It’s not, in short, an ideal arrangement. It’s a testament to Winter Opera’s skill and dedication that their “Ariadne” is, despite these limitations, both artistically satisfying and highly entertaining for most of its length.

Now in its fifth season and with a new home at the Skip Viragh Center for the Arts on the campus of Chaminade Preparatory School, Winter Opera stands poised to be an important player in the growing opera scene locally. If this production is any indication, we can expect great things from them.

The final performance of Winter Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” is Sunday, January 29, at 3 PM. Their season concludes with “La Boheme” at the Viragh Center on March 2 and 4. For more information, you may visit