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First Version Of Strauss' Work : Long Beach Opera Presents U.s. Premiere Of 1912 'Ariadne'

March 10, 1987|DANIEL CARIAGA | Times Music Writer

Gods in hunting clothes and dark glasses, carrying rifles. Male cast members all suddenly wearing pig masks. Zerbinetta & Her Boys as a rock group, in prison stripes, costumes eventually to be taken off onstage--in Zerbinetta's case, down to the skimpiest of underwear. Circe as another rocker, a redhead in spiked heels.

Of course: Long Beach Opera meets "Ariadne auf Naxos."

It was a fine idea for Michael Milenski's feisty, trendy, daring Long Beach Opera to celebrate its eighth birthday this month by venturing the original, rejected, 1912 version of Richard Strauss' sixth opera. And to call it, fairly it seems, a United States premiere.

But it was a risky endeavor. Even done straight--especially done straight--"Ariadne" tests the musical resources of an opera company. It demands vocal casting of frightening specificity and depth, and instrumental soloists on a similarly rare level. To succeed, it also needs sensitive staging, lighting and costumery.

Ariadne I, as musicologists have come to identify the first version of the Strauss/Hugo von Hofmannsthal collaboration of 1912, consists of a shortened treatment of Moliere's play followed by the opera itself. The sung Prologue came later, and was incorporated into Ariadne II, the version most companies perform.

The abandonment and neglect of Ariadne I is easy to understand. Producing a play and an opera on the same bill is financially unsound and artistically questionable. In his critical study of Strauss' operas, William Mann recounts that, at the Stuttgart premiere, "opera fans were bored by the length of the Moliere play, and the drama fans by the presence of an opera much longer than they, or Hofmannsthal, had bargained for."

What the loyal Long Beach Opera fans thought about it Sunday in the intimate Center Theater at the Long Beach Convention Center one can only guess. Though they did not fill the place, they also did not flee from a presentation which stretched out to 3 1/2 hours in the afternoon/evening. And they laughed very hard at Christopher Alden's and David Jacobsen's up-to-the-minute version of Moliere: Indicating Monsieur Jourdain's classiness, one of the footmen claims, "He's Haagen-Dazs all the way!"

As amusing as the play turned out, most "Ariadne"-watchers will probably prefer the sung Prologue. In any case, Alden's very funny staging wrought strong performances from, among others, Philip Littell (Dancing Master), Stephen Engle (Composer), Kyle Heffner (M. Jourdain), Noreen Hennessy (Mme. Jourdain), John Nesci (Music Master) and Dan Lorge (Tailor).

The opera itself proved to be decently sung, though better sung in only one case than it had been in the Los Angeles Opera Repertory Theatre production of 1981. That was Jon Frederic West's healthy sounding Bacchus; though reportedly under the weather, West nevertheless produced ringing high notes and a handsome middle voice.

Mani Mekler's competent and attractive Ariadne was vocally inconsistent in these circumstances--though Alden's otherwise acrobatic and hyperactive staging of the principals did not ask outlandish things from her. Still, she produced strong singing, as did also Constance Haumann, who sang the original, longer and higher-keyed version of Zerbinetta's display aria without flinching, most of it in little more than underpants and black bra.

Their singing colleagues were Ilya Speranza, Stephanie Vlahos, Julie Newell, William Parcher, Adolfo Llorca, Jeffrey Araluce and Nicholas Isherwood.

Randall Behr kept the musical proceedings moving at happy speeds; Mary Jane Eisenberg invented the meshing choreography; the kaleidoscopic sets and costume design were accomplished by Paul Steinberg; Barbara Ling devised the lighting; and Bruce Geller was in charge of wig and makeup design.

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