Ariadne auf Naxos, Richard Strauss
11th February, 2010
In librettist Hoffmansthal’s words to Strauss, “When two men like us set out to produce a ‘trifle’ like this, it has to be a very serious trifle.” Thursday night’s performance of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Met was no mere trifle – comic to be sure, but its effective blend of hilarity and profundity had the audience alternately gaffawing and holding its breath all evening. This seventeen-year old production still feels fresh, and I hope the Met has no plans to replace it any time soon, despite their current tendency to jettison old for new, to varied result.
The story is a classic play-within-a-play – an ‘Opera in a prologue and one act”, with an unexpectedly equal amount of musical beauty falling both to prologue and opera proper. The ‘backstage’ prologue introduces the premise, that, due to time constraints, the brand new opera Ariadne by a young composer will be played at the same time as a comic piece by a commedia dell’arte troupe. The following act is the result: the sublime Ariadne punctuated by interpolated comic bits (and dazzling arias) from the commedia characters.
Ariadne is a vehicle for spectacular vocalism, but its constant shift in mood prevents it from ever falling prey to self-indulgence. This night was particularly effective in that both Sarah Connolly’s Composer and Nina Stemme’s Ariadne transported us to a state of euphoria, throwing the antics of the Commedia dell’arte troupe into spectacular relief. Each moment of bliss was counterbalanced with giggling fun, which made for a distinctly rejuvenating evening of theater and music.
From her opening moments, Connolly convinced us she was a young man, never allowing wayward femininity to break through her complete characterization, yet without being aggressively mannish. But this was only one facet of her splendid Composer. Her effortless negotiation of the rangy, angular role emphasized the horizontal musical motion with dreamy phrasing, meticulous language, and soaring high notes. We absolutely believed in the Composer’s flights of genius, which made the comedy of his egotistical solipsism charming instead of boorish. I was completely captivated, and the apt direction made us believe everyone onstage acknowledged the genius as well, though didn’t take it too seriously.
Particularly fascinating to me was the pairing of Connolly and Stemme, although they are never actually paired in the show. Strauss presages the opera-within-the-opera’s music in many of the Composer’s prologue conversations and monologues, but it was the similarity of Connolly and Stemme’s generous musicality and manner of phrasing that brought this alive for me for the first time. Stemme, gifted not only with the voluptuous instrument required for the role, endowed her lines with sweetness and vital youth, bringing a human and whimsical quality to the heroine. She did not shy away from humour, the Prima Donna’s pique peeking through Ariadne’s pathos when interrupted by the incorrigible comic troupe. Hers is a truly luscious instrument, beautifully used.
The third important woman of the show is of course the sizzling Zerbinetta, played by Kathleen Kim. Ms. Kim has notes and coloratura to spare, and a delightfully youthful appearance. She garnered applause and laughter throughout (she certainly made “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” seem easy), but I couldn’t help but think that she was the lucky recipient of some excellent direction. In the wily but truthful Zerbinetta I need to believe that she has a certain amount of life experience, and I want to feel that depth in her body language and hear it in her vocal colours. I missed a certain physical awareness in Kim’s Zerbinetta, and her too one-colour vocal production and perky persona made one doubt her experience and true feeling.
Canadian tenor Lance Ryan was a smooth Bacchus, negotiating the high-flying role comfortably if a little safely, and looking appropriately god-like and handsome in his cape. Perhaps he could have had a little more physical chemistry with Ariadne, but that may be splitting hairs for someone who can actually sing the notoriously difficult role. In smaller roles, there were a number of standout performances. Among them was Markus Werba’s sexy Harlekin (a dead ringer for Heath Ledger from row N), delicious both to listen to and to watch. Every woman in the audience swooned to his “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen,” and envied Zerbinetta as he mischievously did push-ups over her. Najade (Anne-Carolyn Bird), Dryade (Tamara Mumford), and Echo (Erin Morley) were beautifully matched in intensity and vocal bloom, and whenever they graced the stage our attention was heightened. Dennis Peterson and David Crawford, in their few comic lines as An Officer and A Wigmaker, made us wish they had more to sing.
Maestro Kirill Petrenko led the brilliant orchestra with virility and sensitivity; he embraced the sweep and momentum that suggest the impetuous Composer and his passionate Ariadne, but never overpowered the singers - a certain hazard with the light voices of Connolly and Kim.
Ariadne is a “serious trifle” in part because the fantastical silliness of the story is ennobled by the deeply serious music with which Strauss endows all his women. For Strauss and Hoffmannsthal transfigured love is no less truthful in Zerbinetta’s fanciful roulades than in the Composer’s idealism or in Ariadne’s literal and figurative rescue. Each is granted moments of enchantment, of humanity and of truth, and we are the fortunate voyeurs of all three. This particular evening I was thrilled to be caught up in the story, the stage beauty, the characters and the voices, and was surprisingly moved by flashes of genius throughout.
Bottom line: The recipe for a very serious trifle.
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Conductor: Kirill Petrenko
Production: Elijah Moshinsky
Set & Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer: Gil Wechsler
Stage Director: Laurie Feldman
Assistant Stage Director – Stephen Pickover
The Music Master – Jochen Schmeckenbecher
The Major-Domo – Michael Devlin
A Lackey – James Courtney
An Officer – Dennis Peterson
The Composer – Sarah Connolly
Bacchus/ the Tenor – Lance Ryan
A Wigmaker – David Crawford
Zerbinetta – Kathleen Kim
Ariadne/ the Prima Donna – Nina Stemme
The Dancing Master – Tony Stevenson
Harlekin – Markus Werba
Brighella – Sean Panikkar
Scaramuccio – Mark Schowalter
Truffaldin – Joshua Bloom
Najade – Anne-Carolyn Bird
Dryade – Tamara Mumford
Echo – Erin Morley
FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THIS PRODUCTION:http://www.metoperafamily.org/metopera/