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Seattle Opera Young Artists stun with Ariadne
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Seattle Opera Young Artists stun with Ariadne

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Ariadne auf Naxos by R. Strauss
April 9
Meydenbauer Center, Bellevue


Richard Strauss' opera Ariadne auf Naxos has intrigued me since high school, but it had never thrilled me until last Friday night at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue. This presentation by the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program far surpassed performances of the work I have seen at the Metropolitan Opera or at Seattle Opera's main stage.

Opera has been called the most complex of all art forms, and Ariadne auf Naxos is in some ways the most complex of operas, combining serious and comic opera with a panache that leaves some people baffled. It whizzes by and is difficult to take in on first encounter.

But director Peter Kazaras' conception made the opera not only more accessible but also more effective overall than the more traditional productions I have seen. The commedia dell' arte characters (Zerbinetta and her troupe) were slightly updated from their period to costumes more like Cirque du Soleil - goofy but contemporary. The set was simple but attractive, mostly a bare stage with a very large staircase, with a framed, open doorway at the top. The orchestra (small by Straussian standards, but too big for the pit) was moved onto the stage.

Ah yes, the orchestra! Conducted by Brian Garman, these players (mostly from the Auburn Symphony) made absolutely the most of every opportunity to shine. Special mention should be made of Richard Reed's flawless horn and of the passionate playing of the first violins under first chair Simon James. Garman mastered the lightning-swift changes of mood, letting the orchestra soar where appropriate without ever swamping the singers. So fine was their overall sound that I'm tempted to travel south to hear them on their own turf.

Of the four principal singers, at least three of them are names to watch for. As the Prima Donna (Ariadne), Marcy Stonikas displayed an astoundingly rich voice, with easy production from top to an almost contralto bottom (with no use of chest voice!). Mastery of the arching line needed to make the most of Strauss' unmatched writing for the soprano voice was very nearly hers. This was a big voice, such that she didn't need to approach its limits to rise above the full orchestra. She had poise and a nice appearance. Given a few more years to mature both her voice and her artistry, Stonikas may well become a leading operatic figure.

Megan Hart's Zerbinetta was simply perfection. Her coloratura was first-rate, and her voice was much richer than most sopranos who attempt this killer role. And she knew how to use that extra richness to fill out her comic moments with more detail than I have ever seen. Above all, she was able to make it all appear effortless, which is essential if Zerbinetta is to be an effective, self-assured, know-it-all philosopher.

Most thrilling of all was the heroic tenor of Gregory Carroll as Bacchus. He was a guest artist from the 2009 Merola Program at San Francisco Opera. Carroll was one of those singers whose sound was so exciting that one forgot about his somewhat excessive size. He sang with a perfect line and appropriate expression, so that his voice combined with that of Ms. Stonikas to make their final duet so exciting that I had to re-evaluate this whole opera! For the first time in my experience, the comic elements were properly balanced by the truly sublime ecstasy of the finale, making more sense out of the whole opera.

The role of the Composer, often sung by a mezzo, was here played by soprano Vira Slywotzky. She was an effective actor, especially in her silent re-appearances during the opera, as a kind of commentary to the growing harmony between the comic and serious characters, brought together by the Composer's music. She sang well, but I found her voice rather uninteresting. All the other singers were more than adequate vocally and utterly delightful comically, largely because of the effective and imaginative direction of Peter Kazaras.

That the Young Artists Program could pull off such a totally compelling production of such a difficult opera means its productions deserve as much attention as the main stage shows at Seattle Opera.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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