Prepare yourselves, for Curtis Opera has given us the Gilligan’s Island-themed Ariadne auf Naxos we’ve all been waiting for. But while that might be this production’s most memorable feature–we always have a tendency to identify productions by a signature, the [opera] with the [gimmick], like “the Così with the hippies” or “the Bohème with the UFO”–it’s hardly the production’s only feature.
This is a co-production between Opera Philadelphia and Curtis, but the performers are Curtis students (with one alum, no prizes for guessing which role). The 600-seat Perelman Theater is an ideal space for this opera and for these singers. Like most Curtis productions, the performers are enthusiastic and all at different points in their development. And, like most Curtis productions, it’s inventive and more than the sum of its parts.
Strauss/Hofmannsthal, Ariadne auf Naxos. Opera Philadelphia and Curtis Opera co-production, 3/4/15. Production directed by Chas Rader Schieber, sets by David Zinn, cosumes by Jacob Climer, lights by Mike Inwood, conducted by George Manahan with Heather Stebbins (Ariadne), Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta), Kevin Ray (Bacchus), Lauren Eberwein (Composer).
Let’s start with the production first. The prologue is set in a Brutalist bunker of some modern one-percent Richest Man (sets are by David Zinn). The Composer is an earnest prepster while the comedians are relaxed Californian types. While the setting is contemporary, nothing is really updated–this is a text which is colloquial enough that it doesn’t have to be and the modern dress fits in very well. It’s a shame that the very concise surtitles leave out many of the funniest lines (and sometimes they just don’t make sense–why change the desert island to just a desert?). It’s also laid-back and almost naturalistic in style, without being slow–or at least it is less cartoonish than one often sees (a few moments such as Bacchus’s wig excepted). This works well in the small theater.
Considering what we know about the Richest Man, it’s quite fitting that the opera should take place among a vaguely sea-themed collection of pricey modern art (a Damien Hirst-esque shark and golden skull, an ocean photograph, some neon art). Ariadne is surrounded by a circle of stones. The opera seria people, including the nymphs and Bacchus, are all in white, while the comedy crew eventually roll/walks in, Flintstones style, in the Professor’s bamboo car.
Personally, I’ve always hoped for a Lost or Survivor Ariadne, but Gilligan’s Island is more visually distinctive and, well, probably fits the opera audience demographic more closely (even though it aired well before the entire cast–or I–was born). My careful internet research (=Google) suggests that Zerbinetta is Ginger, Harlequin is Gilligan, and the other comedy guys are Thurston Howell III, the Skipper, and the Professor. It’s a pretty good, entertaining frame for the piece, contrasting the arty (but, of course, extremely commodified) world of high and modern art with the world of TV. It was obvious that this audience is more on the side of TV. I don’t think I needed this production to figure that out. But the uproarious response to the references brings out the juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy in unusually direct, vivid fashion. The two sides also interact more than in many productions–particularly the nymphs.
The ending is a more difficult matter. To be fair, no one knows what to do with this: Bacchus arrives and is transformed, Ariadne is transformed, there is talk of a “love cave,” they both sing about this very loudly (personally I love this incredibly garish music but it is a difficult thing to deal with in context) and at length but it’s unclear if there is any way to depict transformation visually. It’s not Daphne. I’ve seen it staged straight, straight again, ironically, and as high kitsch, and, yeah, it’s always still a puzzle. This production puts Bacchus in the white clothes of the seria characters, and the effect is rather of an elderly cult leader finding his new acolyte. I’m not sure if that’s really where we want to go.
(I brought a number of Swarthmore German and music students to the dress rehearsal of this production, though I also went to opening night and am reviewing that here. I am saying this to thank Curtis and Opera Philadelphia for having us and to quote one of our students, who said, “Bacchus has to be a pick-up artist, right? You wanna get onto my ship?”)
Now for the singing: honestly, I’m not quite sure of the best approach–this is presented by Opera Philadelphia and the students are all extremely talented, but they are students and there are some things they haven’t quite mastered yet. The most complete performances in the cast were given by Lauren Eberwein as the Composer and Ashley Milanese as Zerbinetta. Eberwein has a full, slightly dark mezzo which is just the right color for Strauss, and she has no problem with the high notes. She ripped through the role with unwavering committment and enthusiasm. The soft parts weren’t as easy as the loud parts and her German could be better, but it was an exciting performance. Milanese is also exciting, and already has the technique to sing a very accomplished Zerbinetta. Her voice is light but not thin, the coloratura is good, and her only real hurdle is a spotty trill. Acting-wise, she was likeable and effective without quite putting together all the pieces into a full character.
As Ariadne, Heather Stebbins has a big, bright, cutting voice. She’s also a convincing, specific actress, was touching in her opening scenes, and did all the heavy lifting in the finale. But her ideas weren’t always coming through in her singing, which lacked a degree of finesse and control. She is definitely a talent to watch, however. Class of 2012 tenor Kevin Ray sang Bacchus, and he got through the part with somewhat leathery, unvarying tone. (Why do so few Bacchuses react to their own transformations, by the way?) In smaller roles, Johnathan McCullough was an agreeable Harlequin, Dogukan Kuran a good Wigmaker, and the three nymphs had serious blending problems. As the Major-Domo, Dennis Chmelensky had extremely good German (he may BE German? not sure).
One disappointment was the orchestra, under George Manahan. This is hardly ever a problem for Curtis but the prelude and prologue showed some rhythmic uncertainty and ensemble issues. The second half was better, and some of the solo playing was outstanding.
Still, I highly recommend this opportunity to see a fun production in a small theater. The production runs through Sunday; it is sold out but returns may be available.
Postscript, 3/9: I read this Inquirer review with interest (and only after I wrote the above). I think I understand the criticism that the cultural references are too specific, but it’s not something that occurred to me at all because, well, I’m not so tuned in with Gilligan’s Island. It took some research for me to figure out how specific they were. I am kind of amused, however, that the newspaper’s high art critic is so much more receptive to high art references (Hirst, Richter) than low culture ones (TV).
Previously here in Ariadne auf Naxos:
By the book at the Met Opera (the inspiration for my blog’s header image)
A very old production at the Wiener Staatsoper
An unusual, interesting production at the Theater an der Wien
“Ur-iadne”: the 1912 version at the Salzburg Festival with some of the kitschiest sets I have ever seen