Thursday, September 29, 2005

Notes on an Ariadne

That the Met's revived Ariadne auf Naxos fails is no surprise: the house hasn't succeeded with the piece since at least the Norman days. What may be remarkable is how much individual success fails to add up in this current run.

La-la la-la-la la-la
Susan Graham, for one, comes off well: in phrase and manner she's an exemplary Composer. But for a mezzo in a soprano part -- one premiered by Lehmann & likely perfected by Seefried (something, one might say, like the Dorothea Röschmann of her day) -- crucial vocal shows of his character are a trial. The rapt, easy improvisation of "Du Venus' Sohn" plainly contrasts with the storm and stress of the Composer's outer life; it falls flat if his Gs and As, too, are strained. On Saturday Graham negotiated this remarkably well, in fact floating a beautiful sweet piano at the climactic "Gott". But this time the barrage of impassioned high notes (up to B-flat) that closes the Composer's big moment -- his mini-ode to music -- came out less fluently, hit rather than savored or shaped. Her past Octavians suggest possible improvement in this later in the run; still, this was a very good performance... for a mezzo.

Eine unter Millionen
Ariadne is tricky for anyone; while the second half of the part is a Wagnerian shouting match with Bacchus, the first -- her two arias -- calls for an altogether more delicate sensibility. And it's the first part that sets out her character, and indeed the ground of the whole opera.

Historically and on record, Ariadne's done best with Marschallins -- lyric sopranos of character who could cope with the finale, if not necessarily dominate it. Janowitz, della Casa, Reining (short breath and all)... In their hands the arias are spellbinding, and the rest simply follows. But that sort of casting is improbable at the Met, where big voices are prized.

And Violeta Urmana gives a very good performance for the dramatic soprano she is. The voice has more color than I last remember, and soars pleasingly over the orchestra at volume. She hits the jump to piano B-flat in "Ein schönes war," and perks up excitingly at Hermes' imagined approach. But this latter crescendo of excitement is almost it for vocal characterization; as good a singing actress as she can be in Wagner, Urmana doesn't appear to function on the fine-grained detail level where Strauss characters appear.

Sie atmet leicht
Physically, there's a pleasing firmness to Urmana's bearing that puts her above, e.g., the deeply unsatisfying Voigt; one can with some squinting see the regal in it. But it's undermined by the stage business between Urmana and Diana Damrau, the production's Zerbinetta. Whether by decision of Urmana, Damrau, and/or one of the stage directors, the former doesn't, as per Hofmannsthal's directions, just ignore the latter in this pageant of mutually symmetrical incomprehension. (Ariadne is silent, Zerbinetta chatty, but neither ever grasps the other.) Instead Urmana plays Margaret Dumont as Damrau gestures, wiggles, and plays tug-of-war with Ariadne's shawl. But why? Damrau's monkey business and Urmana's exasperated reactions belong to the "real" world of the prologue, where everything rubs together to comic effect. Here, despite Ariadne's complaint, the magic of artifice lets two incompatible modes appear not in conflict but in simultaneous whole existence on a stage. --A sort of moral-philosophical stereoscope. To pull Ariadne from her autonomous path with Zerbinetta's stage business misses the point.

Ein Blick ist viel
So we don't get a very clear sense of the princess' side of the business. Zerbinetta, on the other hand, comes through quite strongly. Damrau wields a stronger- and richer-than-usual Zerbinetta voice and has no trouble with this technical obstacle-course. And her lively stage personality very much suits the part... no wonder she got by far the largest ovation. And yet the singing (as distinguished from her charming acting) lacks even a drop of tenderness: a sonic heartlessness matched by the also-debuting Christopher Maltman as Harlekin. (Though somewhat at odds with the refreshingly lyrical Dancing Master of Tony Stevenson.) This, however, seems of a piece with the revival's focus.

*     *     *

In 1999 I heard a Lyric Opera of Chicago broadcast of this piece that featured the easiest, most youthfully glorious-sounding performance of Bacchus ever recorded. Debuting here now six-plus years later, Jon Villars shows more strain in the part, but nothing that breaks the opera's spell. Nor for that matter is the clear-textured but routine conducting of debutee Kirill Petrenko cause for (much) worry.

There's much good overall -- I've not yet mentioned Thomas Allen's humane Music Master -- but the "mystery of life" fails to make its promised appearance. I'd love to hear a Damrau Lulu someday though.


  1. My parents keep bugging me to go out to Pittsburgh and see their Ariadne. What do you think the prospects are on that production?

  2. Somewhat iffy, I think. Petrova and Mentzer are ideal... except for high notes. (Despite their respective backgrounds, Petrova does far better with Zerbinetta's words than Damrau -- in fact better, I think, than anyone since Erna Berger.) Eaglen, I suspect, will be an amusing Prima Donna and an unfocused Ariadne, though much depends on whether the director can keep her from sleepwalking through the thing as is her wont. Don't know the rest of the cast. The production, from Seattle, sounds silly (that wretched Composer-Zerbinetta reunion cliche again!). Don't know if that bothers you as much as it does me.

    Overall, I don't know, and obviously can't weigh the value of seeing your parents.

  3. I thought as much, and I thank you for putting it into words! The value of seeing my parents, well, they are into their 70's and show zero signs of "slowing down".

    I love them very much, but am currently a mite peeved at them, since I asked Dad if he would give me enough frequent flyer miles for my (Oct. 25) birthday to go out and see Doctor Atomic, but nooooo ...

    Somehow he and Mom twisted that into "well, we have this season subscription and you could come to Pittsburgh and see Ariadne auf Naxos." As IF!

    As IF I hadn't seen Ariadne enough times or done enough opera workshops on it (to risk an evening of sitting on my hands and biting my tongue for an uneven performance, at best).

    As IF an old Ariadne in Pittsburgh could substitute satisfactorily for one of the BRAND NEW Doc Atomic's in San Fransisco.

    I guess they just want me to visit, but I really want to go to SF! (And I truly don't know how we'll handle it when those two "retire" ...)

  4. We could re-title this post of yours "Ariade Obnixous"... Meow!

  5. I can't comment intelligently on the wonderful post by JSU, so I'll just comment on this comment:

    Ariadne Obnoxious would make a PERFECT opera blog title.

    I hope you are listening, you opera-lovers out there, still sitting on the fence about starting a blog.



Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.