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Monday, January 21, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Rare Opera, And Delightful Surprises

``Ariadne auf Naxos,'' Richard Strauss opera in Seattle Opera production, with Hermann Michael conducting; Opera House, Saturday night (Gold Series), yesterday (Silver Series), through Jan. 30 (443-4711).

Even in the Opera House, the Persian Gulf war is still with you.

Seattle Opera's general director, Speight Jenkins, opted to open ``Ariadne auf Naxos'' with ``The Star-Spangled Banner,'' eliciting just the heartfelt response you might have expected: Fervent, wholehearted singing, and a moment of silence interrupted by impassioned shouts supporting both war and peace.

While opinions may continue divided about the war, there could be few divided opinions on what followed opening night's ``Star-Spangled Banner.'' The production's musical and theatrical values were full of delightful surprises, in an opera that's performed infrequently enough to class as something as a rarity itself.

The best part of the Gold Series opener was the thrill of discovery, always an enticement to opening-nighters. And Saturday's major discovery was the debut of the young Rebecca Russell as the Composer - a crucial role that was sung with imposing ardor and conviction.

Russell has a big, clear voice that carries the bloom of youth; she's able to move with real agility throughout the register, to sing with bite and power, to deliver the nuances of her very emotional and romantic character. She is a believable stage figure as well, despite

the substantial difficulties of carrying off a ``pants role'' - a doubled acting responsibility.

As Ariadne, Nadine Secunde was another welcome discovery. She has a voice of size and opulence, and her range (both musical and dramatic) is extensive indeed. She made an affecting yet frequently humorous Ariadne, interacting well with her Bacchus - Klaus Konig, another Seattle newcomer and another powerfully impressive voice.

Kathryn Gamberoni is very well known to Seattle Opera audiences from her frequent appearances here, but her Zerbinetta also was a discovery of sorts: Never has she been in such radiant coloratura form, particularly with her show-stopping aria, ``Grossmachtige Prinzessin.'' A witty actress, Gamberoni displayed plenty of sparkle throughout the evening, yet her multi-dimensional portrayal also gave us a wry empathy and a touching vulnerability.

The Silver Cast Zerbinetta was the dazzling Cyndia Sieden, another company veteran and a charmer of the first order, who sang with ease and brilliance throughout the role yesterday. Her Bacchus, Maurice Stern, displayed heroic amplitude and power in his company debut.

Christine Seitz was an effective Ariadne, particularly late in the opera after her voice began to open up and she began to deliver more decibels and more animation.

The supporting cast showed strength after strength. Erich Parce was an agile and artful Harlequin; Ray Reinhardt showed precisely the right magisterial touch as the Majordomo; Jan Opalach, Paul Gudas, Byron Ellis, Archie Drake, Darren Keith Woods and John Kuether all did excellent work. And the trio of nymphs - Karol Hansen, Kathryn Garber and Mary McLaughlin - were outstanding.

Hermann Michael led the orchestra with full attention to the rich details of this score, letting the phrases (and the singers) breathe, and recreating the tender melodies with a lingering breadth. The orchestra, as is so frequently the case when Michael comes to guest-conduct, responded to his every move, with even balances between soloists and the orchestra (no easy feat in music of this density).

And one more first-rate discovery: the stage direction of Reto Nickler, a newcomer with an obvious flair for comedy (sometimes very broad comedy) and pacing that served the score extremely well. ``Ariadne'' can have its uneven moments, but this show went on with impressive dispatch.

Even when constrained by some of the aspects of the Wolfram Skalicki sets (on loan from the Canadian Opera Company), Nickler kept the cast moving and provided plenty of physical comedy. Ariadne's desert island was crammed to the shores with activity. Most commendable of all is Nickler's ability to balance the sublime and the ridiculous - which also happens to be the turning point of the opera itself, as the elevated tragedy of Ariadne battles with the worldly and cynical humor of the comic troupe.

Strauss' point here, and that of his librettist von Hofmannsthal, is that life is a stage and we don't always get to do what we want with it, and that point has an extra resonance these days. Ariadne, waiting only for death, finds that it's human nature to long for life, love and levity. In these difficult times, when we are all looking for a way to go on, the boundaries between life and art can fade and disappear.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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