This week the Cleveland Orchestra opened the new year with Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos in a fully-staged production by Frederic Wake-Walker created especially for Severance Hall. Musically it was highly successful, with Franz Welser-Möst at his best in an opera that he clearly adores, conducting a hand-picked cast, leading an ensemble whose strengths he knows.

The ensemble of Ariadne auf Naxos at Severance Hall
© Roger Mastroianni

The Prologue was set as if it were a regular rehearsal of The Cleveland Orchestra, with the musicians in street attire, and Welser-Möst standing on the stage chatting with musicians. At the signal of the stage manager, the orchestral introduction began, and the various characters played their roles in front of the orchestra on the stage extension. The speaking role of the Major Domo, played by veteran baritone Wolfgang Brendel, was fluttery and giggly, but resolute in carrying out his master’s mercurial instructions for the mash-up of opera and musical comedy. Mezzo Kate Lindsey had the voice – even in timbre from lowest mezzo to brilliant high soprano – and temperament for the volatile young Composer, into whose serious opera is inserted the comedy performance directed by the Dance Master, bright-voiced American tenor Jonas Hacker. Baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was calmly sympathetic as the Composer’s teacher, the Music Master. The other characters who play roles in the opera are introduced briefly in prologue. Soprano Tamara Wilson was a flighty Prima Donna, completely unlike the tragic title character she plays in the second half. Soprano Daniela Fally’s Zerbinetta had the most thoroughly developed portrayal of her character, as well as astonishing musicianship in her long, difficult role. Balances between orchestra and singers were generally quite good; however, at big climaxes the orchestral sound engulfed the singers.

Tamara Wilson (Ariadne) and Andreas Schager (Bacchus)
© Roger Mastroianni

During intermission the orchestra was moved to the hall’s pit, lowered into place after serving as the playing area for the Prologue. Orchestra members and Franz Welser-Möst assumed standard concert dress. The use of the pit vastly improved vocal/orchestral balances. The orchestra was flawless and detailed in their ensemble.

The stage was swathed in diaphanous white curtains onto which were projected images and videos. The idea of projections to set apart Ariadne’s tragic scenes from the comic antics of the troupe of players was a good one, even if it ran amok at times. The more abstract images (many based on interior architectural details of the Art Deco Severance Hall) were effective in creating a timeless setting for Ariadne’s recitatives and lament “Es gibt ein Reich”. Tamara Wilson was majestic as Ariadne, pouring out streams of inspired musical lines. The three nymphs attending Ariadne (sopranos Julie Mathevet and Ying Fang, and mezzo Daryl Freedman) were a restrained, sympathetic trio.

Daniela Fally (Zerbinetta)
© Roger Mastroianni

When the comedy troupe (three of whom were costumed as the Three Stooges) made their attempts to cheer up Ariadne, the projections were a phantasmagorical collage of 1920s and 30s comics, cartoons, videos of Laurel and Hardy, and many others. The visuals became a distraction from the music, the stage action and the projected supertitles. Baritone Ludwig Mittelhammer was a suave Harlequin. The other comedians, as played by James Kryshak, Anthony Schneider, and Miles Mykkanen did their best, but often seemed directionless. Again, Daniela Fally, as Zerbinetta, garbed in a 20s flapper dress, was fearless in her long and dazzling aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin”.

Andreas Schager sang the short, brutal heroic tenor role of Bacchus. He rescued Ariadne, and conquered Strauss’ high and impossible music with aplomb. Wilson and Schager achieved musical apotheosis at the end. But Zerbinetta, ever the realist, sings to some of Strauss’ most magical phrases, “When a new god approaches, we women surrender, silent, still.”