Austin Opera’s ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ is a piece of postmodern perfection

There can be certain preconceptions that come with experiencing opera. One need only watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon to see how much the style is parodied and lambasted, thanks to its grandiose feelings and esoteric drama. With the opening production of their latest season, Kelley Rourke’s audacious translation of Strauss’s “Ariade Auf Naxos”, Austin Opera is  attempting to change all that. Gone are the language barrier, the ancient setting, and the over-the-top emotions, as they’ve been replaced by genuine humor and a wild, adventurous spirit.

The piece begins at a ranch in Naxos, TX, where, of all people, the Austin Chronicle’s Robert Faires, as the ranch’s manager, welcomes the cast and crew of the opera “Ariadne”, as well as a rambunctious group of comedy performers. It’s here we discover the issue at the heart of the play: Both the opera and the raunchy comedy are to be performed on the same night, all before a fireworks show (that must be performed at ten o’clock sharp!). With these snobs and slobs already at each other’s throats, another wrench is thrown into the proceedings when its discovered they must perform their piece simultaneously. As the worlds of High Art and Low Art are forced to perform in tandem, what follows is the best combination of both, a Mystery Science Theatre Style send-up of opera, that brings with it plenty of ribald thrills and raucous laughs, while still reminding audiences of the emotional fulfillment and joy that a night of the opera can bring.

Though there are many great performances in the piece, this production belongs to Jeni Houser as Zerbinetta. When she arrives, it’s as if she has wandered in from another production, and she brings such a thrilling vitality to the proceedings that keeps the action moving and the audience rapt. From her styling to her attitude, she seems to take her notes from Bettie Page, and Houser’s sassy spirit and outrageous, naughty demeanor is such a departure from what we’ve seen in opera before, especially when her English dialog mixes with the traditional German of the opera-within-an-opera itself. Even when she’s not taking center stage, her mannerism and stance never waiver; she’s living out this character at every moment.

We mustn’t forget, however, the authentic skill on display in the titular Ariadne, Alexandra LoBianco, who can belt with the best of them and adds an authenticity to the opera-within-an-opera at the piece’s heart. After all, it would be no fun to poke fun at an opera if the opera itself wasn’t worth its salt. She can still ham it up with the best of them, however, as her expressions and reactions are the stuff of legends. By the end, she finds herself in perfect harmony with the opera’s unique voice, creating moments of real beauty. Credit must also be made to her hilarious group of back-up performers, a trio of nymphs played in perfect balance by Sara Ann Mitchell, Claudia Chapa, and Megan Pachecano.

Though she loses much of the attention in the second act (and the play is lesser for it), for much of the production, the Composer, played with sensitivity by Aleks Romano, acts as the play’s heart, an up-and-coming opera writer who believes in truth and love of her art over anything else, causing her to constantly butt heads with Zerbinetta’s  free love philosophies. One of the best elements of the play is the relationship that forms between the Composer and Zerbinetta, as the two come to understand each other through their contrasting arts, creating a refreshing and rare moment of LGBT awareness.

These characters wouldn’t hit the same heights without an intriguing space to play, and luckily the design team, lead with assured skill by scenic designer Troy Hourie, has created such a place. The sturdy wood structures give the scenery an authentic, lived-in feel, while evoking the sense of rural Texas. Also in top form is costume designer Erik Teague, who combines cabaret sensuality and steampunk whimsy to evoke a very particular feel to the more ribald set of performers, while still finding lush styles to give its more operatic characters their own sense of grandeur. When combined with James Sale’s clever lighting work, they create a vibrant word that combines rusticity with ostentatiousness, as high art meets low art to create a thrilling dichotomy.

“Independent, inscrutable, and strange”, sings Zerbinetta in the play’s midsection, and though at the time she’s singing of all women’s hearts, the words could not better describe the Opera she inhabits. What Austin Opera has created with their latest production is an opera that is authentically Austin, full of a youthful energy and a independent spirit. As a few grumbling spectators could tell you, Ariadane in Naxos is not a play for everyone, but if you can tap into its zestful vigor and unique energy, you’ll find a piece of postmodern perfection.

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