By presenting the company premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos in November, L'Opera de Montreal was activating its unspoken plan to wean subscribers off a heavy diet of Italian repertoire. The strong audience response was remarkable, in view of the fact that this production, on loan from the Seattle Opera, added another level of sophistication to Strauss's opera-within-an-opera by moving the setting from the home of an 18th-century Viennese nobleman to the private art gallery of a 21st-century potentate of the Pacific Northwest. Such an updating might not be quite as resonant in Quebec, where government has more to do with arts patronage than individuals. But the general point that performances are rarely independent of their funding was still worth making. Whatever its political attitude, the Act II set--with abstract paintings and glassworks and a giant pseudo-Richard Serra functioning as Ariadne's cave--was crisp, cool and pleasant to see.

German director Chris Alexander--who suggested the Ronert Dahlstrom decor--did a sleek and sophisticated job of moving his characters. The comedy was not overwrought, and the concluding slow recessional of Ariadne and Bacchus was a marvel of dignity. Marina Shaguch applied a brilliant, incisive soprano voice to the title role, wresting our attention away from the hijinks and making us think about her plight. Local heroine Aline Kutan did near-perfect work in Zerbinetta's punishing coloratura aria and played the role with high spirits. Michael Hendrick performed Bacchus with a noble bearing and a trumpet tone.

Georg Martin Bode was suitably imperious in the spoken role of the major-domo. Montreal mezzo Daniele LeBlanc played the Composer with such vitality that one could overlook the fact she pushed hard to be heard. All the other parts were nicely attended to, notably by members of the Atelier program, which seems to be enjoying a bumper year.

The production was faithful to Strauss's request for a chamber-like half-orchestra of 39 players, an unwise economy in a room as big and dull as Salle Wilfrid Pelletier. One might question whether the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Jacques Lacombe played as intensely as it could have in the romantic climaxes that, in the final analysis, keep this opera in the repertoire. But the performance was never less than witty and exact.

Arthur KaptainisOpera Canada