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Summerfest's 'Ariadne' rides crest of superbly blended talents

| Sunday, July 20, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
Patti Brahim
Elizabeth Baldwin in Opera Theater of Pittsburgh's Summerfest production of 'Ariadne.'

A transporting operatic performance is more than an assembly of successful elements.

The Opera Theater Summerfest performance of “Ariadne auf Naxos” by Richard Strauss on July 18 featured outstanding vocal performances, insightful staging and excellent conducting. But the ways those elements blended — casting fresh light on and strengthening each of the components — created the magic of opera one always hopes to experience.

“Ariadne” is in two parts — a prologue and the opera proper. During the prologue we meet the composer and learn why the opera has its unusual form.

Summerfest artistic director Jonathan Eaton directed “Ariadne,” and made his presence felt right from the start with the first of countless enlivening details. During the orchestral prelude in Eaton's staging, The Composer listens to his work, conducting and making notes in his score. This makes The Composer's involvement with his music palpable, laying the groundwork for his singing of a big tune later in the Prologue, as well as his distress when he learns that his opera will be mashed together with another “entertainment,” a commedia dell'arte troupe.

Mezzo Erika Hennings was thrilling as The Composer, giving a fervent performance of a serious, young and naive character. The beauty and focus with which she sang long lines was truly Straussian, while her acting was acutely drawn.

Other impressive elements in the Prologue included Craig Priebe's surprisingly strong and assured Music Master and Benjamin Taylor's beautifully sung Harlequin. Actor Martin Giles gave a nicely drawn portrayal of The Major-Domo, authoritative but not dripping with condescension, as the role is often played.

Another of Eaton's dramatic threads was introduced in the Prologue when Zerbinetta, the leader of the comedy team, gives The Composer a long kiss. He reacts as though he never had such an experience before.

The opera itself, which followed intermission, begins with a descending seventh in the violins, which indicates the despairing mood of Ariadne, who is lamenting a lost love.

But the first singing is by three nymphs attending Ariadne. Strauss' elaboration of the nymphs' musical lines develops into an exquisitely florid trio. Eaton's staging has the women pull on a long string.

Elizabeth Baldwin brought genuine dramatic soprano strength to her performance as Ariadne, although her singing will benefit if she can develop cleaner focus.

Elizabeth Fischborn stole the show as a vivacious Zerbinetta. Her big coloratura aria was all about an irrepressible spirit eager for new experiences, but much less attentive to projecting all the notes. Her message for Ariadne is: Lighten up and be ready for your next guy.

Robert Frankenberry, one of Pittsburgh's most versatile musicians, was effective but miscast as Bacchus — he is not a heldentenor. But although his voice thins just where heldentenors must be powerful, Frankenberry was impressively stentorian in mid-voice.

The German opera was sung in English translation. The original orchestration, which was unusually small for Strauss at under three dozen instrumentalists, was reduced by half.

Brent McMunn conducted a superb performance. He kept the pace moving so that the music was uncommonly sensitive and ready to yield to the warmth of Strauss' harmonies and resolutions. The conductor was impressive technically. The orchestra gave a far finer performance of “Ariadne,” with better intonation, ensemble and character, than it did in “The Merry Widow,” despite the fact that “Ariadne” is a much, much more challenging score.

“Ariadne auf Naxos” repeats at 7:30 p.m. July 26 at The Twentieth Century Club, Oakland. Admission is $25 to $75. Details: 412-621-1499 or otsummerfest.org

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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