Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Utopia Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos Slays the Audience with Satire

On Friday June 5th and Saturday June 6th a Youthquake occurred that would make Frog Hammer envious.* Utopia Opera presented the first two of their four performances of Ariadne auf Naxos to relatively full audiences - many of which were under 30 and totally dug them.

The plot goes something like this: the prologue takes place in the home of “the richest man in Vienna” where two performing groups have arrived. One is a commedia troupe that is set to perform a burlesque and the other an opera company that is to premiere an opera seria. The chaos ensues when it is announced that dinner has run over, both pieces must be performed at the same time and conclude by 9 PM in time for the fireworks display. The second half is the actual performance of the combined pieces resulting in something far more satisfying but equally as pleasurable as a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Ben Spierman’s Catskills take on Richard Strauss’ opera transforms a humorous period piece into a current slapstick comedy more suitable for modern audiences. His direction heightens the relationship clashes between company members and for the most part deftly carries those clashes over in the second half of the opera.

The standout from the June 5th performance was Adam Klein as The Tenor/Bacchus whose flawless vocalism and musicianship along with his clockwork comedic timing remind us all why it is we love the combination of high art and common comedy. Elizabeth Bouk was earnest and sincere as The Composer. Rebecca Paul gave a lovely, sweet-voiced performance as The Primadonna/Ariadne. Jessica Philpot was comely as the sensual Zerbinetta. On both evenings Richard Holmes and Jack Anderson White portrayed the Music Master with worldly pragmatism and were a convincing foil to the passionate and na├»ve Composer. The trio of Naiad, Dryade and Echo - portrayed by Angela Dinkleman, Jazmin DeRice, Monica Hershenson Thuris, Caroline Miller and Hannah Spierman - gave sonically solid performances on both nights and their hypnotic swaying of finger fringe was reminiscent of sea waves – an evocative reminder of the second act’s settling which is supposed to be the desolate island of Naxos surrounded by the Aegean Sea. Gilad Paz bravely portrayed his role as The Dance Master after suffering an injury to his ankle moments into the first act and kept the audience in stitches in spite of his trauma. Samuel Themer as Sacramuccio, Johnathan Rohr as Harlekin and Roman Laba as Truffaldin were a perfectly clownish unit. David Seatter in the speaking role of the Major-Domo was appropriately unsympathetic to the artists’ obstacles. Additional kudos goes to Ben Spierman who stepped in days before opening to portray the role of the Lackey. His interpretation was more along the lines of a veteran stage manager who has seen it all and done it all (and this writer suspects his characterization was somewhat autobiographical).

The standouts from the June 6th performance were Halley Gilbert as Zerbinetta and Alison Cheeseman as The Composer. Gilbert has it all - flawless technique, gorgeous high notes combined with rapier wit and excellent acting skills. Her Zerbinetta is not just a trite tart and her confession to the Composer toward the end of the first act revealing her lonely nature comes from an honest place. Alison Cheeseman’s Composer is beautifully sung and intelligently portrayed. She does not take the bait of self-pity every time there is a threat to the integrity of her opera, but rather comes to that anger and despair from a strong position which makes each moment believable. Alexandra Lang’s vocal performance as The Primadonna/Ariadne is satisfyingly lush to the ears. It will be great to hear her grow more into this part over the next ten years. Shawn Thuris successfully tackled the difficult role of The Tenor/Bacchus and his voice consistently cut the 18 piece orchestra – not a small feat considering the orchestra is on stage with the performing artists in an intimate hall which seats under 200. Elliot Deasy's ridiculous choreography throughout the entire first act only enhanced the wonderfully foppish take he had on his version of The Dancer Master.

What makes all Utopia Opera productions especially unique is the company’s Company Director, William Remmers. One can count on his engaging dialogue at the top of acts, intermissions and conclusions where a broad range of subject matter from world events, science fiction and pop culture weaves its way into relevance. Also the company’s conductor, his signature gallop to the podium is a crowd pleaser and one can always look forward to his theatrical participation while he effortlessly conducts his orchestra with occasional strokes that break the fourth wall. This particular work is a showcase for his dramatic abilities and without offering too much of a spoiler one can look forward to a tempo duel between himself and the Composer during the opening of the second act. His polymathic talents are probably one of the strongest reasons why this company attracts devoted patrons and now members of the Youthquake movement. There are two more performances on June 12th and 13th at 7:30 PM in the Lang Recital Hall at Hunter College in New York, NY. Tickets are $20 (a mere pittance for such great entertainment) and donations are gratefully accepted. While certain major opera company chiefs claim that opera is dying it most certainly is alive, healthy and evolving at Utopia Opera.

*For those of you who do not get the Slings and Arrows reference please view Season 2, Episode 6 – “Birnam Wood”. An excerpt is here - and relevance starts at 2:16. This fantastic Canadian television comedy - starring Paul Gross as Geoffrey Tennant, the Artistic Director of the New Burbage Theatre Festival - illustrates the agony, defeat and glory that comes with bringing great art to the public, funding it and keeping it alive while also offering a window into the actor’s world on and off of the stage. When the Executive Director hires what eventually seems to be an illicit marketing firm (Frog Hammer whose main representative is Sanjay Ranier) to run a publicity campaign to get young people interested in the theater all hell breaks loose. However the campaign surprisingly works and comes to fruition in this episode. (Individual episodes as well as the entire series can be found at

“Geoffrey, there are young people out there gathering in the parking lot!”

Tami Swartz is occasionally a critic but more often an actress that also sings her lines (most recently doing that in Dallas Summer Musicals' production of The King and I). She currently resides in NYC with her husband, her pet plant Groot and her raccoon plush Oreo.

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