05 Mar 2010

Ariadne auf Naxos, New York

As the first familiar themes of Ariadne came from the pit, I felt myself sinking — sinking from a tense, dreary, daily world into a sort of ecstatic fantasy — a place where all was happy, funny, romantic, inane, fateful and surprising all at once — Sarah Connolly superb, Kathleen Kim charming, Nina Stemme full-throated,

Kyrill Petrenko bringing out all the elegant, edgy Schwarmerei of a score that is supremely sophisticated without being too sophisticated to believe in fanciful dreams, and the production, for once in a long while, was a production of the opera being performed, so that all the parts fit together instead of sticking out like bleeding, inefficiently amputated limbs. All was bliss. I can’t remember the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed being at the Met.

You remember the colorful Elijah Moshinsky production, with its vertiginous three-story farthingales on the earth spirits, its rather overdone acrobatics, its sky map giving way to shipscape giving way to setting (or is it rising?) sun? Well it’s as charming as ever. Laurie Feldman’s redirection has no doubt been hampered by having a cast of comparatively slim singers for once — her Brighella, has to wear a false tummy to live up to commedia expectations — but all were game, and the clowns tossed Zerbinetta about in the air in mid-roulade without hampering her breath control. (Diana Damrau, over in La Fille du R├ęgiment, take notice.)

ARIADNE_Kim_and_Connolly_03.gifKathleen Kim as Zerbinetta and Sarah Connolly as the Composer

Sarah Connolly, who sang the Composer radiantly, is not a pretty woman, and she makes her looks work for her in her frequent assumption of trouser roles (Giulio Cesare, Romeo, Ariodante). As a lover, she is sometimes less than convincing, but she was irresistibly right this time for the adolescent, idealistic musician, Strauss’s tribute to his beloved Mozart: clumsy-charming and visibly a-quiver when a seated Zerbinetta casually leaned on his knee. Connolly sang the little air to Cupid and the fervent hymn to Music (the two gods, one might say, who preside over this opera) with a fervent delight that reminded more than one listener of Troyanos and was certainly the most enthralling account of the part to be heard at the Met since her day.

ARIADNE_Ryan_as_Bacchus_282.gifLance Ryan as Bacchus

I think I’ve never heard a bad Zerbinetta — they’re either good or terrific in my experience, which goes back to Reri Grist — and Kathleen Kim (if not quite Swenson or Dessay) was on the terrific end of the spectrum. She is one of the tiny Zerbinettas (a group including Grist and Dessay), and she makes use of her size and agility to boss big folks to great comic effect. Her bewitchment of the hapless Composer is quite believable. In the early scenes her trills were on the colorless side, but all was in place by the time her “Grossm├Ąchtige Prinzessin” began. In that bravura number, where the cascades of ornament can often lack color, she made the notes identifiable notes and brought down the house.

Nina Stemme is too rare a visitor on these shores, as the great dramatic German roles are currently in disfavor here or tend to be performed by second-rate Americans. She sang Ariadne with torrents of earth-deep sound in colors of cognac and sherry, rising to superb heights, rich with frustrated — and then idealized — emotion. She is also as slim as any lover of the opera could desire, and plays a glamorous send-up of a diva.

The trio of “earth-spirits” were charming — and in the higher reaches of the house, I’m told, blended with unusual delicacy.

Though all very decent, the men were not quite so fine as the women in the cast. This is not a tragedy in Strauss, who would have done without male voices entirely if he’d been permitted to do so. Lance Ryan sang the high-lying role of Bacchus without a squall or a crack, in itself an achievement, but with a dryish color that did not always give pleasure. Jochen Schmeckenbecher sang an admirable Music-Master, and the comedians were ably handled by Markus Werba as Harlekin — one has heard more sensuous serenades — Mark Schowalter, Joshua Bloom and Sean Panikkar. In this staging, Scaramuccio and Truffaldino have very little to do and no distinction, but Panikkar gave Brighella a distinctive sound and antics.

Michael Devlin — surely not the man I heard sing Ptolemy to Sills’s Cleopatra forty years ago! And the Count to Te Kanawa’s Countess thirty years ago! But yes, it was he — performed the speaking role of the Major-Domo with archducal hauteur, a man so snooty he regards singing in an opera as beneath his dignity.

Kyrill Petrenko demonstrated clarity and genuine feeling for Strauss’s mingling of delirious motifs, and produced not just a musical fabric but a philosophic statement. The singers all found him easy to work with — they went about their comical antics without appearing to pay him any attention, but they were always together and he was always having fun. So were we.

John Yohalem