ST. PETERSBURG — The moral of Ariadne auf Naxos is that the people paying for a production can order to have it done any way they want. As a reminder of the perils of arts funding, it strikes pretty close to home for an opera company, and the result onstage is a cautionary, if hilarious, tale.
It begins with an absurd premise: The richest man in Vienna commands that because he wants his evening's entertainment to get to the fireworks show in plenty of time, a commedia dell'arte troupe will have to perform simultaneously with an 18th-century opera seria.
Madcap efforts to comply by his staff and hired hands ensue. The result is a collision between tragic Greek myth and low comedy, as the work in question is hashed out in a first act Prologue and then actually performed in all its ridiculous glory in the second act.
Kudos to St. Petersburg Opera for supplying a rare sighting of a Strauss — Richard, not Johann — opera in these parts, with all his musical opulence on display in the orchestrations for a 36-musician band, conducted by artistic director Mark Sforzini, in the opening performance of Ariadne auf Naxos Friday at the Palladium Theater.
Never let it be said that Strauss (and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal) didn't have a sense of humor, even self-mockery, exemplified by the high-minded young Composer, played with spoofy charm by Deborah Domanski, whose mezzo soprano was at its best in the upper register. The Composer's nemesis is Zerbinetta, star of the comedy troupe, a coloratura coquette sung by Hein Jung, and their duet in the Prologue was a beautiful blend.
Ultimately, Strauss' opera is a contest of divas, Zerbinetta and Ariadne, the prima donna on the desert island of Naxos, played by Elizabeth Beers Kataria. Both she and Jung were superbly up to the occasion in the Act 2 opera-within-the-opera on Friday.
Kataria was in lustrous voice, her big scene on the purity of death, Es gibt ein Reich, emerging in gorgeous warmth and eloquent phrasing. This was richly dramatic singing. Then came Zerbinetta's attempt to cheer up Ariadne, Grossmachtige Prinzessin, a coloratura showpiece, full of spectacular roulades and trills. Jung made it a tour de force, not only scaling the vocal heights with an easy, sparkling tone and accuracy of pitch, but also acting with cleverness and wit.
As the heroic Bacchus, first heard singing from the balcony, tenor Adam Russell had a big, fine-grained sound, but it lacked expressiveness. The Nymphs (Michelle Seipel, Heather Witt and Vanessa Rodriguez) were a delight. The Harlequin (Luis Gonzalez) and comedians (Gilad Paz, Brian Wehrle and Chris Romeo) did their routines in fun vaudeville style.
In the Prologue, Karl W. Hesser was properly officious in the spoken role of the Major-Domo.
The Music Teacher (Eric McKeever) and Dancing Master (Peter Burroughs) were amusing foils.
There were deft comic touches to Ben Spierman's staging, which at times spread the action out among the audience in the auditorium. Glenn Avery Breed's costumes were a highlight, especially for Zerbinetta and her troupe and the Nymph trio.