Opera Review: Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos Completes Fort Worth Opera’s Perfect Season

With the fourth production of its 2013 spring festival up and running at Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth Opera affirmed its claim to a presence on the national scene and, if the current trajectory holds, potential international significance as well. Equally important, the production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos underlines the company’s role as a powerful artistic and creative resource for the north Texas region.

The beautiful logic of the season became remarkably clear as a tragedy by Puccini, a comedy by Donizetti, and an intense exploration of one of the darkest chapters of American history in the form of  Tom Cipullo’s Glory Denied were followed up by a work that questions, critiques, parodies, and ultimately justifies the existence of opera.

The influence of Mozart, Shakespeare, Wagner, Mendelssohn, bel canto, commedia del’arte, and a dozen other dramatic and operatic threads all seamlessly interweave in a richly orchestrated late romantic tapestry. And, typical of Strauss, the score demands singers who can convey dramatic intensity and complexity while singing their lungs out.    For this production, the company introduced soprano Audrey Luna to the local audience in the show-stopping role of Zerbinetta, in which Luna bounded through vocal acrobatics while convincingly portraying an empty-headed, egotistical entertainer who turns out to be wiser than anyone else. Opposite her, representing the grandeur of the operatic prima donna, soprano Marjorie Owens returned to the company with her impressively resonant and uniquely beautiful voice. Mezzo-soprano Cecilia Hall likewise enlivened the pants role of the Composer.

Taking advantage of the sharp contradictions deliberately embodied in designer Robin West’s sets, originally produced for Utah Opera, stage director David Gately aptly underlined the dramatic contrast of the serene proponents of “serious” art constantly interrupted by the hyperactivity of an irreverent comedy troupe. Strauss’ extended tribute to Wagner in the duet of Bacchus and Ariadne proved, alas, to be the sticking point at which, though the music continued to soar, dramatic momentum ground to a halt; one might well question whether there is a satisfactory solution to the challenge Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal presented to stage directors in that scene. The Fort Worth Symphony, which turns itself into a magnificent pit ensemble every year for the opera festival, performed the complex score impressively under the baton of Fort Worth Opera music director and principal conductor Joe Illick.