Since it’s put on in lavish productions at the biggest houses, sung by the biggest stars, since it wrings such a rich sound out of such a small band, and since the musical, formal and literary ambitions of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s great meta-opera are so very grand, it might be easy to forget that Ariadne auf Naxos is actually a chamber opera that just happens to demand a singer or two with bulletproof pipes. 

Dell’Arte Opera’s production, as part of their Standard Repertoire Project, was presented in a black box theater, with virtually no sets, and costumed on the cheap. The [reduced] orchestra used an electric keyboard instead of piano and harmonium, and didn’t quite have the panache to pull off Strauss’s more delicate moments. But you know what? It worked.

The stated mission of the SRP is to give rising singers a chance to add new roles to their résumés, and accordingly, the August 20 cast was a bit mixed, with a few well-handled but immature voices, a few powerful but unwieldy voices, a few all-around duds, and a lot of very awkward German diction.

The slightly hollow timbre of Juli Borst, as the Composer of the opera seria within the opera, was more than made up for by an impressively strong, precise delivery and a totally natural dramatic performance; Jane Shivick, as the Prima Donna, boasted one of those mighty voices I mentioned, but her sound seemed to disappear as she descended to the middle of the treble clef, and then lose control of the pitch when she climbed up to the ledger lines.

The supporting players were capable across the board, with the dueling ensembles—the commedia dell’arte boys who crash the opera seria, and the nymphs who meet them there—blending well (with the exception of Melinda Griswold as, ironically, Echo, whose luscious but oversized voice could have been reined in a little) and soloing honorably.

But I was bowled over by the incredibly high caliber of the two singers in the devilishly written roles of Zerbinetta—the commedia trollop—and the opera seria’s Bacchus. If Jennifer Rossetti lacked the sharp-edged precision that a world-class coloratura might bring to Zerbinetta, she had a beautiful sound, made sense of some very complicated melodies, and didn’t drop one of her three billion notes. Just as importantly, she played a complex and intelligent character with a radiant charm that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Broadway.

And Kevin Courtemanche‘s Bacchus was nothing short of stunning. One of the more experienced members of the cast, to judge by his bio (San Franciscans saw him as the Brigadier General in Appomattox), he poured out note after note in a murderous tessitura, and each one shined.

While Courtemanche managed to squeeze a bravo out of me when he stepped up to bow (and I am not one to bravo), I should probably take this opportunity to give an online shout-out to Benjamin Spierman, the stage director who managed to make so much out of meager stage resources.

Every scene was full of detailed, energetic business: the young, blondish clowns, in color-coded vests and half-masks, looked like an a cappella quartet of box-stepping bros, and their slapstick was actually funny instead of wearying; Zerbinetta, in contrast to the aloof diva, pandered so much to the crowd during her grand entrance that she actually clasped audience members’ hands, beaming, on her way to the stage.

The set was two phony rocks and a writing desk during the prologue and two phony rocks and a few yards of blue fabric during the act, but the space was clearly and sensitively organized with some well-deployed lights (Scott H. Schneider, designer), so that even with the stage full of movement, the meaning of every moment was clear.

At the end of this staging, the Composer—harried in the prologue by his patron’s plans to mash up his opera seria with a lot of buffooning—appeared onstage, visibly moved by the chimeric piece, as if he’d needed Zerbinetta’s irreverent commentary to understand what his own work really meant. I knew just how he felt; seeing just a bit of the polished veneer sanded off of Ariadne gave me a new appreciation for Hofmannsthal’s words and ideas, and for Strauss’s intimate, yet monumental piece.