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Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's 'Ariadne' promises lots of excitement

| Thursday, July 17, 2014, 9:09 p.m.
(From left) Robert Frankenbury, Elizabeth Fischborn and Elizabeth Baldwin in Summerfest’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos”
Don Henderson
(From left) Robert Frankenbury, Elizabeth Fischborn and Elizabeth Baldwin in Summerfest’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos”

Summerfest, now in its third season, is the summer incarnation of Opera Theater of Pittsburgh, the city's second opera company. It was founded by Metropolitan Opera singer Mildred Miller and has always been exceptionally creative in selecting shows that complement the bigger company's offerings.

Now, in celebration of the 150th anniversary of composer Richard Strauss' birth, it will stage one of his famous operas, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” on July 18, 20 and 26 at the Twentieth Century Club in Oakland. Pittsburgh Opera last presented a Strauss opera, “Elektra,” in 2003.

“Of all the Strauss operas, ‘Ariadne auf Naxos' is perhaps the most inviting and manageable,” says artistic director Jonathan Eaton. “It is very inviting because there's a lot of comedy in it, which is wonderful for a summer festival. It is a German opera which is still all about love and death, but has a humorous — rather than the stodgy — look one so often gets in German romantic operas.”

He says that Strauss wrote a reduced orchestration for 18 instrumentalists, which makes it practical for the available space at the Twentieth Century Club, not to mention Summerfest's budget.

“Ariadne” was the next opera librettist Hugh von Hofmannsthal and Strauss created after the biggest hit of their collaborations, “Der Rosenkavalier.” Its first version combined a performance of Moliere's play “Le bourgeois gentilhomme” with incidental music by Strauss followed by Strauss' one-act opera “Ariadne auf Naxos,” based on a Greek myth. At its premiere, the evening last six hours and was a failure.

After starting on another opera, “Die Frau ohne Schatten,” Strauss and Hofmannsthal created a revised version of “Ariadne” — ditching the Moliere and replacing it with a prologue giving the backstage story for the one-act opera, which was revised and shortened.

The overarching humor of “Ariadne” is that two contrasting theatrical works — one serious and the other comic — that were intended to be performed separately have to be mashed together because the wealthy man who paid for the entertainment doesn't want a fireworks display to be delayed.

“One of the nice things about this piece,” Eaton says, “is that a lot of the characters who take themselves very, very seriously get their comeuppance.”

Eaton says that the comic elements are a great invitation to hijinx on stage, but that the opera is often staged in a static way. “Our approach is gripping and forward-moving. There won't be a dull moment in it.”

Zerbinetta is the leader of the commedia dell'arte troupe. She has “probably the most difficult and lengthy coloratura role in the repertoire,” Eaton says. “We're blessed with an absolute knockout, Elizabeth Fischborn, who can sing it (virtually) standing on her head. She has such a natural gift for comedic acting and extra-athletic singing, she'll be among the best Zerbinettas you'll ever hear in your life.”

The Ariadne, and also Prima Donna in the Prologue, will be sung by Elizabeth Baldwin, winner of the 2013 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition.

“She's a strong, fairly heavy German soprano, not your olive oil and sunshine soprano,” he says. “Her vocal type is perfect for this role.”

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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