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"Ariadne Obnoxious" a Delight at CCM

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Mar 10, 2009 - 12:57:22 AM in reviews_2009

Nicholas Muni
Zerbinetta as Madonna.  Harlequin as Gene Simmons.  
   The “wealthiest man in Vienna” as a board president entertaining donors and VIPs at his home.
    That’s how Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” played out March 7 in Cohen Theater at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.
   A workshop production of the CCM opera department, Strauss’ durable comedy about serious opera unnaturally conjoined with Commedia dell’Arte was adapted to ingenious effect by director/CCM artist-in-residence Nicholas Muni.
   The arrangement for two pianos was by CCM artist diploma student Wei-En Hsu, who conducted from the keyboard with great skill (collaborative pianist was Chi Youn).
   Muni, artistic director of Cincinnati Opera from 1996-2004, updated it from the 18th-century to present day Cohen Theater.  Scenic, costume and lighting design were also by Muni, as were the English translation and projected English titles (text was sung in both languages).
   “Ariadne” is a play-within-a-play, the first act serving as prologue to the second, which is the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos” melded with farce.
    The story, as Muni’s director’s notes explain, is fraught with issues of class, culture and the nature of love:
   A composer and a music master nervously await the premiere of their opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which has been commissioned by the wealthiest man in town to entertain his guests.  It is high art, a serious German opera about the daughter of King Minos of Crete.  The man’s assistant (a speaking role) informs them that the opera will be followed by a musical comedy, i.e. low art, and they are outraged.  It gets worse when they learn that the two must be performed together since fireworks begin promptly at 9:45.  Zerbinetta, star of the comedy, struts her stuff and is ogled by her four companions.  She almost wins over the composer, but he stands firm against melding the shows.  
   As the second act begins, Ariadne mourns her abandonment by Theseus, a Greek hero whom she has rescued from the Minotaur, her father’s ultimate weapon.  Zerbinetta tries to cheer her up, as do the four comedians.  Ariadne will not be comforted, but awaits only death in her cave on the island.  Joining her in mourning is a cluster of nymphs (Naiads and Dryades).  Bacchus, who has been wandering aimlessly, arrives and Ariadne welcomes him as the messenger of death.  Realizing that she will go with him even to death, Bacchus is transformed into a god and they depart together.  Zerbinetta observes this without understanding, saying, in effect, “I told you so,” meaning that all Ariadne needed was a new lover.
   Muni’s take on this was hilarious, thought-provoking and like all CCM Opera Studio productions, bare-bones economical. The action was spread over the entire floor of Cohen Theater.  There with long screens for titles and projections at each end, plus two grand pianos.  Ariadne’s cave was a white circle painted on the floor.  As audience members arrived before the first act, the Composer (affectingly sung by soprano Claire Maloney) was poring over a score atop one of the pianos.  Some of the listeners were drawn into act two by sitting in chairs placed on the floor to seat the board president’s guests.
     Costuming and makeup (mostly donated) was pointedly effective.  The Composer and Music Professor were in work-a-day black with sneakers (Michael Young affected an impressive German accent as the latter).  The nymphs were dressed in blue and black velvet with white makeup.  Harlequin was a face-painted, guitar-swaggering rock star, the Dance Captain (Jesse James Ragland, II), a cool huckster with a hip hop stride.   Ariadne (sung in a strong, sure voice by soprano Kimberly Buczek) was veiled in black crinoline.  She and the nymphs utilized stylized gestures right off friezes and Grecian urns. 
   Harlequin (tenor Kevin Chan), the only comedian who scores with Zerbinetta, licked her lasciviously while the others rolled on the floor in agony.  Zerbinetta (soprano Alison Scherzer), emulating a psychiatrist in a dark suit, pulled out a notepad as she addressed her spectacular coloratura aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” to Ariadne.  Slender, good-looking Scherzer did this nimbly, by the way, even as she stripped down to her pink underwear.  Bacchus (a budding heldentenor named Chase Taylor), strode on heroically in a white suit to claim Ariadne.  The Board President, who has dozed off during the opera, could be seen through the screen at the end as the fireworks ignited.
   Muni’s English text conveyed much of the opera’s comedic zest.  “Ariadne Obnoxious,” for example, is how Zerbinetta pronounced the opera’s name and there was frequent reference to her “boy toys.”  “Hey lady, why so weird and sad?  Say goodbye to feeling bad,” sang the comedians as they tried to distract the grief stricken Ariadne in act two.
   Muni’s stroke of genius was the reappearance of Zerbinetta at the end, obviously battered, makeup smeared, clothing torn.  (Harlequin didn’t look so good himself walking behind her.)  She and Ariadne embraced tearfully.  Perhaps another lover was not the answer.