On Sunday, I was delighted to see the final performance of Curtis Opera Theater's Ariadne auf Naxos, produced in conjunction with Opera Philadelphia and performed at Philadelphia's beautiful Kimmel Center. I'm a big fan of opera on every professional level, including high-level conservatory productions like this. The Curtis Institute has long been considered one of the nation's top music schools. Its impressive list of alumni includes Leonard Bernstein and Eric Owens. To be part of such a school's voice and opera program suggests a great talent, and there was talent aplenty onstage Sunday afternoon.

Heather Stebbins (Ariadne) and Kevin Ray (Bacchus) © Cory Weaver
Heather Stebbins (Ariadne) and Kevin Ray (Bacchus)
© Cory Weaver

There were many things to love about this production, but I must first rave about the singers. The Ariadne of Heather Stebbins was full of great promise. A very sizeable voice, lovely artistic expression, and good stage instincts lead me to believe she will have a place on the world's stage. I look forward to seeing what a few more years will add to her already considerable talents. The Bacchus of Kevin Ray, a 2012 Curtis graduate (the only cast member who is not a current student), was equally impressive, with a rich tone and a great sense of fun with the silly Prologue costume he wore (what we in the US call tighty-whiteys, a truss, and an open satin dressing gown). I consider Bacchus a thankless role, and the final duet between Ariadne and Bacchus is usually a snooze – so static and serious after the comedy that has preceded it. Nonetheless, these two gave it their all and the audience was rewarded richly.

Zerbinetta was sung by Ashley Milanese. Again, tremendous promise in this lovely soprano. She negotiated the difficulties of “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”, Zerbinetta's signature aria, with great aplomb, almost nonchalance. The entire role requires the same the level of technical mastery, and Miss Milanese was at ease with all of it. As with all of the singers, I think stronger direction would have done her a world of good. I'd love to have seen even greater commitment in her acting, but this is a small complaint. Lauren Eberwein was a handsome young Composer, in tux, beard and yellow socks, and sang the demanding role with great skill. One admired her high voice especially. The Composer and Zerbinetta had great chemistry together onstage, and one did believe the Composer was learning to see beyond his pen and ink.

Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta) and Jean-Michel Richer (Scaramuccio) © Cory Weaver
Ashley Milanese (Zerbinetta) and Jean-Michel Richer (Scaramuccio)
© Cory Weaver

Zerbinetta's four sidekicks were charming, their costumes suggesting the American 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island (shipwreck, desert island – you get the idea). They were very well sung by Jonathan McCullough (Harlequin), Mingjie Lei (Brighella), Jean-Michel Richer (Scaramuccio), and Thomas Shivone (Truffaldino). Mr Shivone was particularly amusing in several costumes from the aforementioned television show, including Mary Ann and the Professor. (Why Mr Shivone was a Baywatch lifeguard at one point, I never did quite understand.) Mr McCullough sang and acted Harlequin, the most prominent of Zerbinetta's gaggle of boys, quite well, with a lovely sound and a great sense of humor.

The Nymphs of Elena Perroni, Anastasia Sidarova and Kirsten MacKinnon sang well and showed appropriate concern throughout. I also quite liked the Tanzmeister of Roy Hage, who was delightfully smarmy while singing beautifully. Musiklehrer Sean Plumb, who impressed with his beautiful singing in Opera Philadelphia's Barbiere in September, continues to impress. I can not fail to mention the Major-Domo of Dennis Chmelensky, all disdain and officiousness in tux and no socks. It was no surprise to learn he's a native German speaker: the Major-Domo is the only part that is entirely spoken, not sung. In German.

Jean-Michel Richer(Scaramuccio), Thomas Shivone(Truffaldino) and Mingjie Lei (Brighella) © Cory Weaver
Jean-Michel Richer(Scaramuccio), Thomas Shivone(Truffaldino) and Mingjie Lei (Brighella)
© Cory Weaver

The production team deserves kudos. I adored the costumes created by Jacob A. Climer. Ariadne's wedding gown and veil, and the three Nymphs' bridesmaids' dresses, were quite effective. Bacchus looked dashing in his shiny white suit with the gold crown of olive leaves. Zerbinetta's costume mimicking the glamorous movie star in Gilligan's Island was particularly effective and amusing. All the costumes referencing that television show were clever.

The action was updated to the present day. I still have my usual objections to updating – more distracting than enlightening – and I can't really say that much was added by updating this production, aside from the opportunity for clever costumes. (I fear that might be the case, more often than not, when most operas are updated!) However, I can't denounce this updating, because social roles were not blurred and there were clever elements aplenty, including the costume tricks I mention. There was a huge reproduction of Damien Hirst's art work The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (think shark art). Michael Bolton, Opera Philadelphia's Vice President of Education, explained in his excellent pre-performance lecture other references to modern visual art in David Zinn's designs, including more references to Mr Hirst and to Marina Abramovic.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra played the difficult score beautifully under guest conductor George Manahan. I was able to see one of the monitors the cast members saw (multiple monitors are frequently used to make it easy to see and follow the conductor), and when I could tear my eyes from the stage to watch it, I found him easy to follow and expressive.

I'm sorry this was the last prerformance of the run, for I'd have gladly recommended seeing any remaining performances. I'd have gladly seen additional performances myself.

****1