The Platonic ideal of young-artist opera involves fresh-faced talent bringing ardor and a sense of discovery to roles they’re singing for the first time. The reality, however, doesn’t always play out that way. But the Wolf Trap Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” gets it right.
Opera lovers may double-take at the idea that “Ariadne” is good young-artist fare. A wacky play-within-a-play built around the humorous premise of a wealthy aristocrat deciding that the opera and the light entertainment he has commissioned should be performed simultaneously, it features complex orchestral writing andWagnerian-scaled voices. But this company — in its first year under Lee Anne Myslewski after the retirement of its longtime head, Kim Witman — is notable for selecting its repertoire after it auditions singers and basing its season on the voices it has available, rather than, as so often happens, shoehorning people into parts.
For Ariadne, they had Alexandria Shiner, who recently completed her third year in the Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz program. Shiner’s starring role in the one-hour opera “Taking Up Serpents” earlier this year did not prepare me for the sheer volume she offered as a Brunnhildesque Ariadne. On Sunday, she seemed most comfortable delivering big, shattering high notes, finally, perhaps, letting out of the bag a voice that has sometimes been forced to remain within it. It’s an impressive instrument, but it needs some development: The focus on the top notes was accompanied by persistent flatness in the upper-middle notes and weakness in the low, and there’s room to improve the beauty and grace of less climactic passages.
That Bacchus was up to the job was a given; Ian Koziara made a mark here in “Idomeneo” last summer and remains powerful and assured, though it sounded as if he had to work a bit in some of the louder passages. The third mainstay of the cast was Lindsay Kate Brown as a wonderful, warm Composer, the young creator of the opera who in the first act despairs at seeing his work (yes, his: the role is a pants role, meaning a male character sung by a woman) and artistic vision threatened by the patron’s whim. At her best, Brown offered not only luminous full singing, but also a sense of the character, communicating the quick changes of mood from despair to feverish excitement at coming up with a new tune, so clearly that you could hear and share her reaction.
The orchestra, too large for the small pit in the Wolf Trap Barns, was onstage behind a screen, which muffled the sound a bit but kept the musicians, capably led by Emily Senturia, from drowning out the singers. Director Tara Faircloth used the supporting cast to advantage in a production that was at once fairly conventional — set around the time the opera was written, in the early 20th century — and quietly inventive, particularly in its use of the backstage area in Act II, so you could see what was happening on the fictive stage and what was going on behind the scenes.
The three nymphs had a comic presence of their own, with Echo (Ashley Marie Robillard) making a late entrance due to flirting backstage with another singer and consistently being put in her place by the Naiad (Meagan Rao) and Dryad (Anastasiia Sidorova). The conceit that Echo’s echoes of the soprano were enthusiastic interpolations, rapidly shushed by the two other singers, was particularly funny. And Joshua Conyers, with his strong baritone, and Ian McEuen, with a wiry tenor, made fine foils as a kindly, pragmatic music master and a hustling dancing master in Act I.
Among the audience favorites was Alexandra Nowakowski’s Zerbinetta, which was charmingly played but sung rather mutedly, the coloratura sounding a little fuzzy and underwhelming. Zerbinetta, the comic foil, offers real-life commentary on Ariadne’s plight, backed by a quartet of men (Ron Dukes’s warm bass was a particular asset) as she continually inserts herself into the soprano’s limelight. If Nowakowski — another Domingo-Cafritz veteran — didn’t quite do it for me vocally, her interpretation of the character gave a perfect bittersweet touch to the close of this exuberant performance.
Ariadne auf Naxos, with music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, continues on Wednesday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. wolftrap.org/opera.aspx.