Review: Ariadne auf Naxos (The Canadian Opera Company)

by Melissa Bridges

I had high hopes for The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos as this season is filled with exceptionally well presented works. However, I did not particularly enjoy this twentieth century German opera.

For me, the fault did not lie with production itself nor with singing, but with Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s libretto and Strauss’ score.

Ariadne auf Naxos is written in two parts, the first part is the prologue, which focuses on the backstage adventures of a commedia dell’arte group and an opera company.  They are forced to combine forces at the last minute to perform the very serious opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos”, by a wealthy Viennese aristocrat who has commissioned them both to entertain his guests.

In the second half, the performance of the opera is based on the Greek myth; mixing romance, comedy and drama as the rival companies tell the tale of Ariadne abandoned on an island and longing for death.

The prologue opens on a realistic present-day backstage set, cleverly designed by Dale Ferguson. I loved Ferguson’s modern costume designs, particularly for The Wig-Maker (played by Adrian Kramer) who was sporting leather pants.

The backdrop provides lots of opportunities for the two bickering casts to play and Neil Armfield’s direction is spot on in the first half.

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s Composer is definitely the star, her voice is both rich and warm as she worries about what the comedic troupe will do to her beloved work.

The only problem I have with the prologue section is the spoken role of Major-Domo, played by Thomas Hauff. I find his German to be stilted and lacking the natural flow one would expect from someone who is supposed to be fluent in the language.

For me, and my guest for the evening, the second half feels stiff and heavy, no thanks to Armfield. Ferguson’s set is what one would expect for a deserted island; barren and drab and the costumes for the opera company are beige and tattered.

Although the fictional performance of the opera is extremely well sung, I find the long drawn out arias sung by soprano Adrianne Pieczonka’s Ariadne are just a little to much in the style of Wagner for my liking. That being said, Jane Archibald sparkles in her impressive, crowd pleasing aria that is dramatically different in style from the long lines that make up the rest of the formal opera.

Although this production was my least favourite of the 10/11 COC season, I would recommend serious opera lovers try and see it before it closes; if only for the exceptional singing provided by a largely Canadian cast.

Ariadne auf Naxos is playing at The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen Street West) until May 29, 2011
– Shows times are on specific dates (details available here) and are generally at 7:30PM, except matinees at 2:00PM
– Ticket prices range from $62 – $281 with standing room only tickets available for $12 and rush tickets available at $22 every night at 11:00AM the day of
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231

Photo of Jane Archibald and Alice Coote by Michael Cooper