26 Aug 2008
“Ariadne auf Naxos” at Toronto Music Festival
“Only in the realm of the dead is everything pure.”
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Billy Budd, portrayed by handsome lyric tenor Liam Bonner, is a charismatic embodiment of innocence.
This was in almost every respect an excellent performance — which therefore exacerbates the problem lying at the heart, or whatever it is that lies in its place, of the work itself.
Bilbao is always news, Calixto Bieito is always news, Carmen with a good cast is always news. So here is the news.
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Its soothing wooden walls gently bathed in aquamarine light, the very modern Hall at King’s Place made a surprisingly fitting venue for a musical journey to the intimate Elizabethan chamber.
A handsome new production, beautifully staged in Marseille’s fine old opera house cried out for a cast to make the opera bel canto.
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“Only in the realm of the dead is everything pure.”
In its third season, the Toronto Music Festival successfully produced Richard Strauss’ bi-parte opera-within-an-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. Under the brilliant direction of Agnes Grossmann, also the festival’s artistic director, an assembly of talented young performers, and some more experienced ones illuminated the stage of the MacMillan Theatre for a few hours of dramatically exciting and expressively stimulating music.
Ariadne began as a joint project between Strauss and Hofmannsthal. Interestingly, the version that is now performed originated from three separate ideas. As a result, there are two extant versions: Ariadne I, in one act, to be performed after a German version of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, and Ariadne II, in a prologue and one act. In this version, Hofmannsthal and Strauss combined the Ariadne myth with commedia dell’arte characters, juxtaposed with 18th Century operatic stereotypes.
Although, Ariadne herself was a point of obsession for Hofmannthstal, Strauss was equally focused on Zerbinetta, to whom he attributed a grand scena di coloratura, equitable to the pyrotechnics in Lucia’s Mad Scene. The original cast included Maria Jeritza as Ariadne, and Margarethe Siems as Zerbinetta. Equally enticing, however, is the young composer of the opera-within-the-opera. The Komponist’s intricate text and singing in the prologue is not only telling of Strauss’ personal connection to the character, but also lyrically masterful.
Melinda Delorme (Ariadne)
The TMF’s production began with a well-effected instrumental opening and intended musicality on the part of Maestra Grossmann and the National Academy Orchestra. She delicately controlled the voicing of the orchestra, and managed dynamic inflections and colorations with ease and precision. The dynamic thrusts that are elemental in Strauss where well handled and the orchestral palette was never compromised.
“Lonely Island Resort,” inscribed on large lettering facing the back of the stage, and a resort lobby complete with a front desk, vacationing guests, and a circulating revolving door, set the stage for the prologue. The first scene lent itself to some fine singing by baritone, Gene Wu, who produced good tone and well-inflected accento puro. The diction coach for this production was Adi Braun, whose authentic instruction faired well on the singers. The stage director, Titus Hollweg’s design was brilliant and never boring, in an opera that can sometimes lack if the singing and inflection is not continually affective. This was not the case in this production, however.
After the Major-Domo, portrayed by The Direction, announces that an opera buffa will be performed after Ariadne before the nine o’clock fireworks, the young composer arrives in hope of a last-minute rehearsal. Dramatically performed by young mezzo-soprano, Erica Iris Huang, the Komponist was convincing in his actions and expressiveness. Huang has a golden tone that is equally beautiful in the lower and higher tessitura, however, her intelligent shaping, and use of messa di voce made the Komponist even more expressive and affective to the audience’s sympathies.
After some kafuffles, the Major-Domo rings again to announce that the two operas are to be performed “simultaneously!” Since such a combination would certainly mean several cuts to the score, the Ariadne soprano and tenor argue over cuts to their respective scenes. Soprano, Melinda Delorme and Tenor, Steven Sherwood make their first stage appearances while singing in a recitativo. Steven Sherwood’s diction was sometimes unclear; although his voice has many promising attributes, he tended to struggle with the overall tessitura of the role. Delorme expressed a warm golden-orange hue to her soprano, and although she sang in recitativo, it was evident that there was more to this voice, thus causing greater anticipation for the opera-within-the-opera.
Désirée Till (Zerbinetta)
To try and resolve the situation, Zerbinetta, portrayed by soprano Désirée Till, sets out to extract the details of the opera seria from its author, charming him into compliance while calculating where her comedians can best intervene. She is at least intrigued, though not remotely persuaded, by the impassioned metaphysical gloss he puts on the story. Till has a lovely clear tone in the higher tessitura, as is often the case with present-day Zerbinette, even though the role is not specifically written for a soubrette, but for a lyric coloratura soprano. While in North America we have somehow misconstrued the soubrette as commensurate to the lyric coloratura, historically, it is not the same. While Till’s voice is promising, there was a significant lack of legato in a role that was written to equate to Bel Canto aesthetics and the type of fioritura produced by those aesthetics. Till’s exuberance and dramatic aptitude was, however, illuminating and brilliant. One might have liked to see her “true self” come through more affectively in her almost-love-duet with the Komponist.
After Zerbinetta’s tender moment with Komponist, Huang took center stage once more, and fashioned some tender moments of passion and intensity. His paean to “holy art music” is enough to touch any artist or music lover in the most intimate way. Although Huang had some more difficult moments here, contending with the orchestral palette in this section, she expressed a most beautiful lower register and some truly lovely sotto voce moments. In a brilliantly directed moment, the Komponist brings the orchestra into the diegesis. While singing of the sacred nature of music, he motions to the music that swells beneath him, gesturing to the orchestra, thus bringing the orchestra out of the typical mode of accompaniment or harmonic scaffold and making it a full-fledged character within the opera.
The opera Ariadne auf Naxos begins with a destroyed set from the prologue, and Ariadne standing on what had been the front desk, complete in a bridal gown and veil; behind her, an uncut wedding cake. A winding, melancholy overture in G-minor, with an allegro of dismay and alarm opens to the stage-within-a-stage. There were some unsteady moments in the tuning of the violins in this overture. Ariadne’s movements are spastic and she expresses a heavy burden. Although Delorme was dramatically interesting, the actions she effected asked for an even broader sense of abandonment. Three nymphs appear, with exquisite costumes, and lament Ariadne’s inconsolable state. Dramatically and vocally apt, Anna Bateman, Ada Balon, and Laura McAlpine gave solid performances. Until this moment, Strauss’ use of the harmonium has been, more or less, a sustaining factor, but he now entrusts piangente harmonies to the instrument.
The comedians appear with wonder at whether they can cheer up Ariadne. Kudos to Christopher Enns, David English, James Baldwin, and Stephen Bell, for their comical acting and competent vocal performances. Ariadne is unaffected by the comedians, and instead begins to recall Theseus-Ariadne in her soliloquy, “Ein schönes war.” Delorme finally demonstrated the instrument that she had given us small-tastes of in the prologue. A magnificent instrument, with spinto dramatic qualities, Delorme has a bright future ahead. Her continual sense of legato and expressive lyrical shaping left the audience excited for this young singer’s future. Although she had some inconsistencies in her sotto voce singing, the full-range of her instrument is tremendous and illuminating. She possesses a secure middle-voice and a very attractive tone.
The comedians are affected by Ariadne’s lament, as is Zerbinetta, who enters to convince Harlequin to try a little philosophical song. Baritone, Neil Aronoff, has a lovely voice and although he had some difficulty in his higher tessitura, he shows much promise and aptitude for lyrical singing. Ariadne, of course, ignores him and continues her elongated lament. The morbidity of her singing causes the comedians to jump into a Biergarten-like quartet with a descant by Zerbinetta, who quickly realizes that this has had no affect on Ariadne.
She sends the comedians away and addresses Ariadne herself, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin!” Zerbinetta tries to rationalize for Ariadne. “Do we not not all want each lover to be once-and-forever?” She recalls her own collection of amorosi in a brilliant coloratura showpiece, complete with recitativo, a couple of ariette, a rondo with variations, and competing flute. While Till was dramatically stimulating, her vocal production, here, was not as secure. She presented some illuminating moments, but by the end seemed a little vocally exhausted, which is understandable considering the difficulty of this scena. Zerbinetta’s music is a technical exercise and although there were moments of inconsistency, the audience warmly applauded in support of this promising young artist.
During Zerbinetta’s performance, Ariadne withdraws into her cave, refusing to listen. Perhaps this was Hofmannsthal and Strauss’ one error. With Ariadne not present, the intended comic friction between genres is not so evident and so the scene becomes an alternation of soprano styles, rather than a confrontation. Zerbinetta’s scena is followed by the comedian’s major scene, which was comically exciting and well performed, leaving only Harlequin to win Zerbinetta’s heart…or favours.
Suddenly, the nymphs appear to announce the arrival of Bacchus. From afar, his heroic tenor is heard, exulting from his escape from the witch-seductress, Circe. Tenor, Steven Sherwood had significant difficulty in this section, and although his voice shows promise, the high tessitura caused much strain and an absent legato. His arrival on-stage was visually spectacular, with a magnificent ocean-liner called the “Dewine,” crashing through the stage-set and illuminating the stage with its gargantuan presence. Bacchus stands in a stationary captain’s suit, from which he eventually steps down, and sings to Ariadne from above. At first, she expects death, but seems to welcome Bacchus tentatively. Bacchus tells Ariadne that he is a god and during their intense duet, she gives herself up to the stranger sent from heaven.
Delorme continued to express her magnificent instrument in the duet, although dramatically it left one aching for more raw passion and attraction between her and Bacchus. Sherwood struggled throughout, but had some vocally beautiful moments. The lover’s voices entwine and raise up to an epiphany in D-flat and the orchestra effects a pompous fortissimo, eloquently manifested by Maestra Grossmann.
The end of the opera brought Ariadne onto Bacchus’ ship and the return of the prologue and opera characters, including the Komponist, who says nothing but moves to express his affections for Zerbinetta, who finally show her true heart in a gesture of reciprocation. Overall, the production was successful and dramatically interesting. Maestra Grossmann kept exquisite balance between the voices and orchestra; one was never an intrusion on the other. In this production, Melinda Delorme and Erica Huang shone as bright Canadian lights with promise for future operatic success.
Mary-Lou Patricia Vetere © 2008