Saturday, May 7, 2011

Ariadne auf Naxos: Töne, töne, süße Stimme

(c) Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
This has been a good spring for Strauss at the Met.  After a luxurious Capriccio, we get Ariadne auf Naxos with an incredible cast under the baton of Fabio Luisi.  Luisi's passionate, precise conducting was a joy, evoking the disparate characters of the prologue's bustling drama, and opening out into glorious, sweeping lyricism when this was called for.  I'm not an Ariadne-expert, but I thought the orchestra was appropriately knowledgeable and gently ironic as well.  (Parenthetically, I was seated between a lady who knows the opera backwards and loves it passionately, and the personal trainer of one of the cellists, who was hearing it for the first time.  We all loved it.)  Elijah Moshinsky's production--pictures from previous runs here and here--I thought very successful in the prologue.  The opulence of the house was established, there was not-too-broad comic business for the Tenor and Prima Donna, and a detailed treatment of both relations within the comic troupe and the group of musicians, and the increasingly hostile relationship between the factions.  I wasn't entirely sure how much of the opera staging was supposed to be taken seriously; it seemed to me that Moshinsky was choosing to amplify its ambiguities, rather than interpret them. I did like the treatment of the constellations and the presentation of Najade, Dryade, and Echo, but I thought the opening up and closing of various layers of cloud backdrops got to be a bit much.  Still, the finale was musically glorious.

I admit, before attending this performance of Ariadne I was nervous about "getting it."  I had listened to the Sinopoli recording, checked Karen Forsyth's monograph on the opera out of the library, and found Lotte Lehmann's reminiscences about its first performances a gossipy delight. Interestingly, a book on German Modernism in music and art calls attention to a proliferation of ironic and parodic treatments of the Ariadne myth around the time that Strauss and Hofmannsthal were beginning their work.  And I read the libretto a lot and was confused.  In hearing and seeing Ariadne live for the first time, I was glad of this background knowledge, but felt unburdened by it; the singers and orchestra made an excellent case for the opera independent of its myriad associations and influences.

The singing was, I thought, without a weak link, though certainly with some outstanding performances.  Echo was Lei Xu, who impressed me as the First Priestess in Iphigénie en Tauride earlier in the season.  The reliably excellent Tamara Mumford was Dryade.  Michael Devlin was deliciously supercilious as his second Straussian major domo of the season.  The audience as a whole was more impressed with Vasili Ladyuk's Harlekin than I, but he gave a fine performance with vivid vocal characterization.  Thomas Allen (Sir, the) gave a Music Master of immense, slightly wry wisdom, touched with world-weariness but still overflowing with compassionate warmth.  It seems almost superfluous to add that this was accomplished through supremely elegant singing, with wonderfully expressive phrasing and diction.

I'm a little bit in love with Joyce DiDonato's Komponist.  In her hands this idealist was introduced to us as a very sweet young man, a touch naive perhaps, but characterized chiefly by single-minded passion.  There was nothing risible about his earnest ardor.  DiDonato sang (and dashed up and down and around the stage,) with apparently boundless energy, using wonderfully secure sound to communicate with winsome persuasiveness.  The Komponist's emotional roller-coaster was charted with fearless exuberance, but never seemed overblown.  The impassioned, inbrünstig "Seien wir wieder gut" was at once intimate and ecstatic. I loved it.  The sincerity of his passion took Zerbinetta by surprise, and called forth an equally passionate response; this I also loved.  Kathleen Kim's Zerbinetta was an aptly ambiguous creature; in the prologue, her professions seemed more informed by weary, slightly bitter pragmatism than cheerful zest for whatever life had to bring next.  Openly derisive of the Komponist's idealism, she was nonetheless fascinated, even attracted by it.  Her calculating manipulation of him seemed based on genuine desire.  In her scenes with her four cavaliers, she shone, vivacious in vocal and physical action.  Either it took Kim a little time to warm up fully, or me a little time to warm to her portrayal, but I thought she sounded brighter and fresher in the second part of the opera.  With "Großmächtige Prinzessin" she brought down the house.  "Astonishing!" the Ariadne-lover next to me exclaimed happily. It really was a tour de force, dramatically nuanced as well as jaw-droppingly virtuosic.

Robert Dean Smith navigated impressively the task of being a laughable caricature of a Tenor in the Prologue, and being a Bacchus who did not evoke memories of this caricature.  I found him genuinely hilarious in his former incarnation, convincingly ardent in the latter.  His voice carried by its bright, ringing quality rather than its size.  He was moreover so intrigued by Ariadne that my thoughts became quite Zerbinetta-ish: Pst, Ariadne, I know you're soliloquizing but he's really into you.  If I was not thrilled to my core, I think this lies in the role of Bacchus rather than the singing of Smith; his god was both noble and verträumt.  Violeta Urmana's Prima Donna and Ariadne seemed less firmly separate than the halves of Smith's dual role, but both were impressive.  Magnificently high-strung and high-maintenance in the prologue, in the opera she was equally conscious of her dignity, but also genuinely magnificent.  She has spoken of her affinity for portraying strong, complex women; her regal, vulnerable Ariadne was a moving example of such a portrayal.  At first haughtily disdainful of Zerbinetta and her crew--daring to intrude on her splendid sorrow!--she warmed to an appreciation of Zerbinetta's compassion.  At least to me, it seemed that Ariadne's final transformation was not least in being released to give herself passionately, and know herself in the giving, rather than anxiously examining her own emotional journey.  Strauss and Zerbinetta, of course, cannot resist examining it for her.  Ariadne runs for two more performances.
Unfortunately blurry, still adorable: DiDonato and Allen.
Kathleen Kim, Zerbinetta

Robert Dean Smith, Bacchus

Violeta Urmana, Ariadne

The Maestro! Fabio Luisi


  1. Although it must be an old production (I've seen Jessye Norman and Tatiana Troyanos in those garbs), the costumes still look good.

  2. @DTO This one dates to 1993; Norman sang Ariadne in its first run. The Ariadne gown, at least, does bear a striking resemblance to the one from the previous production, as well. I think the Komponist's stock is a little more subdued, fortunately!

  3. Ah, it's probably that.


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