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Island Life

November 20, 2011

Amber Wagner and Brandon Jovanovich with cast in Act II of Ariadne auf Naxos. Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2011
I can’t shake the feeling there’s a changing of the guard underway on the stages of American opera houses. I suppose that is always true with various careers either taking flight or cooling off. And there is certainly always the next big thing waiting in the wings. But it is also true that a number of young American singers have been given notable high profile assignments lately commensurate with the heat surrounding their performances in smaller roles or on smaller stages. The Metropolitan Opera and New York critics are currently in the process of anointing Angela Meade as the next bel canto star without the requisite reality TV series such titles usually require these days. Meanwhile at the Lyric Opera of Chicago where superstar soprano Renée Fleming is taking her first steps in the role of administrator, the house has been integral in thrusting one of its own Ryan Opera Center alumna, Amber Wagner, into the spotlight. Wagner is making a splash in the Wagner/Strauss corner of the soprano repertory. She was slotted into a few performances as Elsa in last season’s Lohengrin that got her very good notices. And on Saturday she stepped into the headlining spot in a revival of Ariadne auf Naxos when the originally scheduled Deborah Voigt dropped out several months ago deciding instead to concentrate on her own Brünnhilde performances in New York.

It’s a good casting decision, and a deserved step up for a singer who made a far lower profile Met Opera debut this fall as Anna in Verdi's Nabucco. And from the sound of Saturday night’s opening Ariadne performance under music director Andrew Davis, there is no reason to believe that she couldn’t be the next Wagnerian superstar. She has a big, beautiful voice with ample warmth and that requisite ability to cut through a massive orchestra. Her acting appears to be developing by leaps and bounds as well. She was much more assured this time than previously. The top part of her range still didn’t strike me as completely opened up, but there was no shouting or strain and she held the stage well against a large ensemble cast. She may not have been a marquee name going into this run, but these performances will undoubtedly bring her one step closer to that point.

Alice Coote. Photo: Dan Rest/LOC 2011

To complement Wagner, the company cast an array of young Americans in most of the major roles. Brandon Jovanovich sang Bacchus. He seems to pop up in just about anything these days, and though he an interesting singer, as with his turn as Siegmund in San Francisco last summer, he sounded a little thin for this particular role. Anna Christy, a Chicago favorite, sang Zerbinetta with a lot of flair and solid coloratura technique. However, she sounded rushed in her extended Act II aria with Davis granting her little extra space for flourishes other singers milk with abandon. René Barbera and Matthew Worth were also included in the cast as Brighella and Harlekin respectively. There were outliers in this cast of young Americans including Eike Wilm Shulte as the Music Master who was quite good opposite the other big name in the cast, Alice Coote as the Composer. Coote also has a knack for a wide variety of roles in most corners of the mezzo repertory. Her composer had the requisite power and musicality but not quite the lyrical brightness I’ve seen her muster before in Baroque roles or as Massenet’s Charlotte in Werther. She too seemed hampered somewhat by Davis’ rather restrained conducting that lacked a greater dynamic range and lushness.

But really all of these minor issues could be less noticeable if it wasn’t for the staid and uninspired staging from John Cox who was greeted with cool applause during the curtain call. The opera is set in the 18th century and Cox uses the stage-within-a-stage conceit for the production. And while all of this is certainly within the letter of the libretto, the look is tired and predictable. Act I is inexplicably dominated by a large wheel used to raise the curtain and scenery on the back stage of the set while Act II has all the pretty costumes and stand and deliver singing you could ask for. Cox has a better take on the comic elements of the story, and when Zerbinetta and her boys show up to deface the set or merrily prank Ariadne, the show is at its best. Cox seems unsure about what to do with von Hofmannsthal’s more serious moments. He sometimes covers them up with concurrent visual gags either about the set or the characters, which is preferable to when he just elects to ignore them and let them pass. But for many in the cast including Wagner, there are surely many other notable productions of this and other operas that lie ahead. And now is the time to enjoy hearing the career of a major vocalist unfold here in Chicago where Ariadne auf Naxos runs through December 11.


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