When we last heard from Pacific Opera Project in March, the local company was cleverly reinterpreting Mozart’s The Abduction From the Seraglio by dressing up the cast as characters from Star Trek. Now it's bringing the same absurd approach to Richard Strauss’ comic opera Ariadne auf Naxos, whipping up a marvelous soufflé of rampant silliness interspersed with seriously dreamy singing.
Even a brief but intense show of lightning outside — and leaking rain inside — the Highland Park Ebell Club on opening night couldn’t distract from director Josh Shaw’s lively pace and the singers’ perfectly timed shenanigans as they dashed about onstage and through the audience. The production keeps Strauss’ sumptuous melodies and much of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s original German libretto but adds irreverent new English-language lyrics and dialogue by Stephen Karr. The setting of this opera-within-an-opera has been relocated to a quaintly fictionalized version of the Highland Park Ebell Club, which in real life opened in 1912, the same year that Strauss debuted his opera.
You couldn’t miss Karr on Thursday night. Not only did he conduct the small but vibrantly warm 11-piece orchestra of strings, horns, winds and piano, who were ensconced in a corner of the intimately homey room, but he simultaneously guided the singers and deftly sorted through the onstage chaos by giving cues and pointing like a traffic cop.
What makes the opera so engaging is the artful way in which it juxtaposes slapstick humor with passionately dramatic singing. An intense, nameless composer (Claire Shackleton) is preparing for the debut performance of her tragic opera, in which the despairing mythological figure Ariadne (Tracy Cox) is stranded on the Greek island Naxos until she encounters the god Bacchus (Brendan Sliger). The composer is distressed that her opera has to share the bill with a crass act led by burlesque charmer Zerbinetta (a radiantly voiced Sara Duchovnay) and a quartet of seeming imbecilic vaudevillians decked out tackily in straw hats and matching plaid suits.
Not only that, but it’s been decided at the last minute that, in order to save time, the opera singers and vaudevillians must perform their separate shows simultaneously onstage. Shackleton’s voice is stirringly searing as she tries to salvage her opera, only to be constantly interrupted by the vaudevillians’ pratfalls. It’s “opera mangled just a bit,” as one of Zerbinetta’s crew admits.
Just as the second act was about to commence, the rain began thrumming heavily and percussively on the Ebell’s roof, and moments later started leaking right on the piano. As the musicians huddled and decided to move the piano, one couldn’t help but wonder, “Is this part of the show?”
Before long, though, Cox turned into a force of nature herself, belting out a powerfully beautiful aria that drowned out the rain and police chase going on outside. Sliger’s vocals were also robust and properly heroic, despite cracking momentarily, and a trio of mermaidlike nymphs (Maria Elena Altany, Kelci Hahn and Sarah Beaty) entranced with exotically shimmering melodies.
GO! Pacific Opera Project at the Highland Park Ebell Club, 131 S. Avenue 57, Highland Park; Fri.-Sat., May 15-16, 8 p.m., & Thurs.-Sat., May 21-23, 8 p.m. $20-$120. (323) 836-1318. pacificoperaproject.com.
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