The story of "Ariadne auf Naxos," the comic opera by Richard Strauss, sounds like a party-giver's worst nightmare. Entertainers booked for the occasion — comic actors and opera singers, each with their own production — are squabbling vehemently over how to split up a shrinking window of stage time before the promised fireworks.
It's composer vs. director. Singer vs. actor. Cast vs. crew.
And where's that prima donna, a bright young thing cast as Ariadne, the abandoned love of Theseus?
It's rehearsal time and she's MIA.
The resolution of this big artistic dilemma becomes an opera within an opera. (Yes, most of the "actors" are really singers.)
And audiences in the Valentine Theatre Friday and next Sunday for the Toledo Opera's season opening performances will see fireworks all right, although not the incendiary kind.
Vocal fireworks, plenty of them, are in store during this hilarious 1912 period piece that features five tenors, four sopranos, three baritones, and two each mezzo-sopranos and basses.
Among the large cast will be returnees, including Heather Buck, coloratura, in the starring role of Zerbinetta, and Barbara Quintiliani, much lauded dramatic soprano, in the title role.
Thomas Conlin will be in the pit conducting the Toledo Symphony and stage director Jonathan Field will watch his cast go through the paces he set for them during weeks of rehearsal in the opera's downtown headquarters.
"I've wanted to do this opera since I was 26 years old," noted Field. He directs theater at Oberlin College, where he is a theater professor, and has worked on plays and operas around the country and abroad.
He will emphasize broad acting techniques to play up the tension of squabbling performers who disdain each other, a task Strauss' music enables. "What I find with every first-rate opera composer is they are masters of style," Field said.
As principals in the drama's acting company, Buck's Zerbinetta and baritone Markus Beam's Harlekin will seem larger and more effusive than, say, Quintiliani's morose Ariadne, who ultimately seeks seclusion from all the excitement.
The performance consists of a disputatious prologue, to be sung and spoken in English, and the opera to follow.
There are lots of firsts in this production, which ramps up the excitement for all.
It's the first time "Ariadne auf Naxos" has been presented by the Toledo Opera, the first time Buck has sung the demanding role of Zerbinetta, and Field's first work in Toledo, not to mention his first waltz with this opera.
Buck took the role, as she says she usually does, because she has wanted to perform it ever since learning the major aria while a graduate student at Yale University.
"I'm game, just game," she said of her career approach.
The aria her character, Zerbinetta, sings to Ariadne — advising that she find another lover — is a soprano benchmark in the opera world.
Buck describes the finale, which closes on a high E, this way: "It's like in a fireworks show, you get these big things all the way through and then at the end, all these big tricks pulled out. At the end it goes absolutely haywire. I do the high, wild, and crazy singing.
For Beam, who is playing Harlekin for the first time, the opera is part of his eclectic approach to a career that is taking him to major stages in the United States and around the world.
"It's a really fun character," Beam says. "We're the comic relief in this opera within an opera. It's refreshing to do it."
Also appearing in this production will be Michael Hayes as Bacchus, who woos and wins the heartsick Ariadne; Stacey Rishoi as the Composer; Mathew Edwardsen as Dance Master, and Jeremy Kelly as Music Teacher. Lawrence Jones, Gustav Andreassen, Alex Richardson, Kirsten Chambers, Priti Gandhi, and Sarah Helzel will appear in supporting roles.
Oh, and there's one nonsinging actor as well: Brad Cresswell, a retired opera singer turned area radio personality and classical music maven, who will portray the Major-domo.
Ariadne auf Naxos will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Oct. 10 in the Valentine Theatre. Tickets are $30-$85 at 419-255-7464.
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