West Edge Opera's Ariadne Rises to Conquer

Michael Zwiebach on October 31, 2011
Emma McNairy as Zerbinetta
Emma McNairy as Zerbinetta
Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

West Edge Opera (formerly Berkeley Opera) has boldness in its name, a boldness it has earned with productions that rethink operas, from the score to the stage. Now, Artistic Director Mark Streshinsky has upped the casting level, as well, making it a comparable strength and the company’s most notable aspect.

The trend continues with the latest West Edge production, Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, which opened on Sunday afternoon. The company came up with trumps, offering a strong, well-rehearsed cast that confidently dispatched Strauss’ demanding score. Under Music Director Jonathan Khuner’s sensitive direction, the show adhered in a satisfying way, within the intimate confines of the El Cerrito Performing Arts Center in the town’s high school.

Ariadne is the first show in a season promising to explore “the intersection between pop and opera.” Although Strauss and his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were too early for modern popular celebrity, the opera’s contrast of classical archetype and modernity is tailor-made for that idea. Streshinsky takes a lighthearted view of the opera, without trivializing it.

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The high point in his direction comes, appropriately enough, in Zerbinetta’s great coloratura aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” (High and mighty princess). The dancing master (sung by Michael Mendelsohn) comes on stage with a Steadicam and films Zerbinetta (Emma McNairy) MTV-style, while she does a number of slinky, pop-diva moves, such as crawling on the ground toward the camera.

We were treated to as fine a group [of singers] as a small regional company could hope to muster.Streshinsky tries to balance that by having her direct some of the aria’s reflective moments affectionately toward the Composer (Buffy Baggott), but the overall effect lies in the opposite direction. Although the Dancing Master says of Zerbinetta, “She can work in any situation because she always plays herself,” “herself” is a creation and she may not know who the person beneath really is. All you can do is applaud the performance, as Ariadne (Marie Plette) does, with the audience close behind.

Marie Plette as Ariadne
Marie Plette as Ariadne
Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

With scenery reduced to a bare minimum, the focus was on the singers, and here Streshinsky’s wife, Marie Plette, is now a mainstay, and her Ariadne was excellent from all points of view, her voice in fine, lustrous form, easily sustaining the long lines Strauss assigned her. Buffy Baggott, as the Composer, filled the role with youthful passion; in a nod to modern-day reality, she plays a woman, not a man. Her aria “Ich sehe jetzt alles” (I see everything with newly opened eyes) was radiant.

Emma McNairy is a young singer in a hugely challenging part, and the first thing to say is that she has the notes for Zerbinetta — no small compliment when one of those notes lies in dog-whistle territory: a high E above the staff. She threw herself into her 11-minute aria, holding nothing back and carrying off some complicated stage business while singing it. So brava to her on those counts. Hers is a bright voice with plenty of carrying power but much less compensating warmth and richness (though that may come in time). And even with what she’s got right now, she should find her dance card full.

It’s Called Acting

San Francisco Opera stalwart Philip Skinner had the first sung words of the show as the Music Master, and what luxury casting he represents! The authority and velvety power of his voice, along with the focused energy of his presence, immediately sent the show into overdrive. It was hard for me to take my eyes off him, even when he was listening to other people sing — that’s what great acting is.

Jonathan Smucker (Scaramuccio), Paul Murray (Truffaldin), Emma McNairy (Zerbinetta), Michael Desnoyers (Brighella) and Daniel Cilli (Harlekin)
Jonathan Smucker (Scaramuccio), Paul Murray (Truffaldin), Emma McNairy (Zerbinetta), Michael Desnoyers (Brighella) and Daniel Cilli (Harlekin)
Photo by Mark Altenberg

Former Adler Fellow and longtime Metropolitan Opera regular Dennis Petersen sang Bacchus. Although the voice shows some of the dryness associated with age, especially on high notes (the man has been in the business for almost 30 years), it still has its trademark clarity. Ben Bongers takes over for him next weekend.

There are too many small roles to mention, but suffice to say that when you have tenor Jonathan Smucker as Scaramuccio, baritone Paul Murray as Truffaldin, and even a fine female chorus (Sara Couden as Dryad, Sable Rivera as Naiad, and Sara Moravej as Echo), you’ve got enough street cred to dine out on for quite a while. All praise to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music vocal program, whence most of these singers come.

Dealt a strong hand, Jonathan Khuner conducted with his usual assurance and unobtrusive leadership. His 18-player orchestra (playing a smart, chamber-sized reduction of Strauss’ original “chamber” orchestration by Christopher Fecteau) coped with the unyielding demands of the score and acquitted itself well, though the violins were underpowered at times and the single brass players cruelly exposed. Still, for its combination of staging and fine voices, you can’t do better than West Edge Opera’s Ariadne, short of finding a big-budget major company.

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