The premiere of the new Canadian Opera Company production of Ariadne auf Naxos was a dramatic occasion indeed. Neil Armfield’s new production, handsomely designed by Dale Ferguson, was upstaged by some genuine drama.
First, there was the return of Sir Andrew Davis, former Music Director of the Toronto Symphony, who made his long-delayed debut conducting with the COC. Davis gave us brave tempi indeed, taking a brisk and business-like approach throughout that i believe served Strauss very well. The COC Orchestra seemed happy enough, sounding lustrous.
Then, we heard that local soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, scheduled to sing the title role, was forced to cancel due to illness. As a result we experienced the debut of an understudy in the title role.
Young American soprano Amber Wagner made her COC debut singing the Ariadne. There were no telltale signs that Wagner was unprepared for the part that i could see. At one point –during a scene with Zerbinetta where a scarf gets trapped under a body– I was thinking “ah this is because she’s the understudy, an unfortunate mistake”. But that was a purposeful and clever part of the direction, not a mistake, as we soon discovered.
Wagner wasted no time in showing us she was for real. In the Prologue she was a deliciously bitchy Prima Donna backstage before she came onstage in the “opera” as Ariadne. The voice is rich, reminding me of Jessye Norman or Helen Traubel, but without the tendency those two great stars had to sometimes sing below pitch. At the very least, Wagner showed us that she belongs comfortably at this level, and never resembled a replacement.
Another Canadian raised eyebrows as well. Richard Margison has spent his career singing the starring roles in French & Italian opera, known for his rendition of “Nessun dorma.” I saw something new a couple of years ago, when Margison took on Florestan in Fidelio, a part usually entrusted to a heldentenor. Bacchus in Ariadne is another role requiring a genuinely heroic sound. Like Florestan, it’s not a long role, and therefore is a good choice for a singer exploring a new type of role. I would say on the basis of what i heard that Margison has made a clever move, as there is a world-wide demand for this kind of singer, a demand that as far as i can tell, Margison can and will fulfill easily. The voice sounded huge no matter how loudly the orchestra played, and the top is still as effortless as ever.
I keep talking about star performances. I am not about to stop anytime soon.
The audience favourite was hard to discern, given Davis’ popular return, Margison’s heroics, and especially the drama surrounding Amber Wagner’s substitution and fearless performance. With all those candidates, i think the loudest applause likely went to our Zerbinetta –admittedly the role that normally steals our hearts– portrayed by Jane Archibald. The singing wasn’t just accurate, but infused with all the flirtatiousness that we could wish for in a Zerbinetta. Director Armfield gave the character a gradual crescendo of adoration, climaxing in her aria, a swaggering showpiece to bring Strauss back from the dead. The adoring males included not just the entire onstage Commedia dell’Arte troupe but even conductor Davis, to whom Archibald playfully blew kisses, and thereby expanding the show outside the proscenium in the process.
The other star in the production was Alice Coote as the Composer. Armfield pushed this Composer in a more serious direction than I have seen, by making the Prologue a very modern backstage environment, complete with cigarettes and pizza. At first i thought this might backfire, especially watching Coote, in her earnestness facing the irreverent cacophony of the callous theatre professionals.
But Armfield showed me something i either never saw before or perhaps was too cynical to notice. As he points out in the director’s notes, with reference to Zerbinetta, “underneath the smiles of the clown there is a human heart breaking.” While it’s true that Zerbinetta says words to that effect, every Zerbinetta I’ve ever seen plays from the outside in, making us admire her skills while keeping us at a distance. We don’t see the soft heart beating under the surface: except in this production. And as a result the opera, when it began, seemed especially artificial, after the realism we’d seen in the Prologue.
The strength of the COC’s company was clearly in evidence on several fronts, whether in the clear voices of Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Simone Osborne, Lauren Segal and Teiya Kasahara), or in the plethora of delightful performances, such as Peter Barrett’s Arlecchino, Christopher Enns’ Scaramuccio, and Adrian Kramer, making more comedic capital out of the tiny role of the Wig-Maker than usual.
Ariadne auf Naxos (likely with Adrianne Pieczonka re-assuming the title role) continues until May 29th at the Four Seasons Centre.