Review: Pacific Opera Project Goes Greek with “Ariadne auf Naxos” at Ebell Club of Highland Park

Cast of Pacific Opera Project's "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Courtesy of Pacific Opera Project)

Cast of Pacific Opera Project's "Ariadne auf Naxos" (Courtesy of Pacific Opera Project)

Richard Strauss (June 11, 1864 – September 8, 1949) was one of the most important opera composers of the Romantic period (1780–1910). His most loved operas are “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Salome”.

One of his lesser known but widely produced operas, “Ariadne auf Naxos” (Ariadne on Naxos) is being presented by Pacific Opera Project (POP) at the historic Ebell Club of Highland Park built in 1913 through Saturday, May 23rd, 2015. This comedy is an opera within and opera as the musicians and singers in the story clash with a vaudevillian burlesque troupe for a chance to perform in front of the richest man in Vienna.

POP’s production is set in Los Angeles and specifically at the time when in 1913 the original opening of the Ebell Club venue was set and just minutes before its Gala Event. A red carpet was laid in the center, between the stage and the back of the main space to allude at the opening of the club as well as provide an entrance from the rear by the cast.

We first meet the newly elected president of the club H.H. Meyer, played with great panache by Tim Campbell, the female composer of the opera (mezzo-soprano Claire Shackleton) and the music teacher (baritone Ryan Thorn) as they discuss the evening’s festivities. It seems that there has been no agreement of who to choose for the entertainment and that both troupes have to perform together.

Enter the hilarious male vaudevillians, tenors Jon Lee Keenan and Robert Norman, baritone Nicholas LaGesse and bass-baritone Keith Colclough, and headed by the saucy and sexy soprano Sara Duchovnay, who will caused havoc for the opera singers playing Ariadne (soprano Tracy Cox) and Bacchus (tenor Brendan Sliger). Duchovnay has great acting ability as well as a clear, strong voice as she tries to seduce Shackleton ending in a scandalous, erotic lesbian kiss.

The first act is mostly used as a set up and build up for the actual “performance” in the storyline which takes place in the second act. Nonetheless, there are some lovely singing moments by Shackleton and Thorne as the frustrated composer and music teacher who not only make quite the handsome couple physically, but their powerful and expressive voices provided a musical highlights early on.

Accompanying the cast on this musical journey was the strong, 11-piece orchestra headed by music director Stephen Karr who brought great following and sound even over the thunder storm raging outside on Thursday’s opening night. Having the instinct of an improviser, Karr quickly moved the piano that came under an unexpected leak probably saving the day or, should I say, night.

As the second act rolls around, the audience is rolling (pun intended) in laughter as the two troops try to fuse their two distinct styles of entertainment in order for the show to go on. Some very clever, creative set design, lighting and staging by artistic director/set designer Josh Shaw added another layer of humor to the production. Harking to the early part of the 20th century, Shaw’s stylize ocean waves, clouds and rocks complimented the wonderfully eclectic, period inspired costumes by Maggie Green.

As the opera within an opera is performed we finally get to hear the gorgeous and powerful voice of Tracy Cox who also displays great comedic timing as she deals with the absurdity of having to sing a classic opera while dealing with all the shenanigans of the burlesque troupe. Complementing the role of Ariadne is Slinger’s Bacchus whose strong vocal range and expressiveness made for a great pairing.

Rounding off the final scene were the talented trio of nymphs/mermaids sopranos Maria Elena Altany and Kelci Hahn and mezzo-soprano Sarah Beaty that along with the vaudevillians and Zerbinetta packed in some great laughs and vocal power to end a talent filled and very satisfying performance.

Once again, POP’s fearless leader, artistic director, set designer/builder and opera enfant terrible Shaw has pulled out another fun-filled evening out of his multi-purpose hat to entertain and delight his faithful audience.

Humberto Capiro is a Contributing Writer for Living Out Loud - LA, covering lifestyle and entertainment. Follow him on Twitter: @HumbertoCapiro

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