Thursday, April 08, 2010

Lonesome Ariadne

[Expect some old reviews here for a while as I clear out the backlog.]

Ariadne auf Naxos -- Metropolitan Opera, 2/8/2010 & 2/15/2010
Stemme, Kim, Ryan, Connolly, Ryan / Petrenko

Acres of velvet greeted this show on February 8, a problem the Met more or less successfully papered over by the next week. On the one hand, it's understandable: none of the principals yet has the sort of local name recognition (Nina Stemme is, of course, much bigger abroad) that puts butts in seats, while the opera itself appeals strongly to cognoscenti but is, again, unknown to the casual operagoer. On the other hand, the revival of Elijah Moshinsky's now-classic production brought together a uniformly strong cast for the most successful Ariadne here in a while.

Stemme first: best known for singing the big Wagner parts in Europe, the Swedish soprano actually made her debut here a decade ago, singing Senta opposite James Morris' Flying Dutchman. Her voice then seemed a bit small for the house, but it's now strong and full through the whole of Ariadne's substantial range.

In fact Stemme's success here was largely due to pure vocal strength. Ariadne's part (as previously noted) is half lyric solos, half Wagnerian shouting match with Bacchus, and it's in this latter part that Stemme really shines. Interestingly, the scale of her soprano allows Stemme to be more refinedly warm and vulnerable as the volume and accompaniment swells -- naturally full-voiced, she never has to just go as loud as she can to keep up.

She catches the character too, and though -- as with other recent Met Ariadnes -- the great lyric beginning is not quite tragic, not quite the lament and rapt death-invocation of a woman wholly at the end of her rope, Stemme's Ariadne is at least princely, knows herself to be born to some grand and awful destiny. Even in the forced interaction with Zerbinetta et al. that this production pushes on its Ariadne (the direction has not much changed from five years ago), Stemme does not (as predecessors did) break her character's spell -- instead, she reacts with a decided impishness that ever-more-strongly proclaims her status.

It helped, of course, that Stemme was paired with a most honest coquette of a Zerbinetta in Kathleen Kim. The recent Olympia gives us a Zerbinetta who's neither showing off nor showing up Ariadne, but living and preaching her own credo with utter sincerity -- and, despite full measure of worldliness and happy vulgarity (until the static Attila premiere, it seemed every Met production this season would have onstage dry-humping, and this revival was no exception), not a bit of cynicism or world-weariness. Those who expected a more Mephistophelean contrast to Ariadne may have been disappointed, but Kim's Zerbinetta was as memorable as her other recent outings.

The February 8 performance was, in fact, Canadian tenor Lance Ryan's Met debut. He was scheduled to begin the week before, but this revival got off to a poor start when Ryan got sick and had to be replaced by a less satisfactory Bacchus. The role is, of course, a prime exhibit for Strauss' proverbial dislike of tenors, and difficult even for the best. On his debut night, Ryan sounded so good -- clear, young, and powerful -- in his early offstage shouts of "Circe!" that his ordinary onstage singing was a disappointment. (I believe offstage parts are mike-assisted at the Met, but it shouldn't have made such a difference.) A week later he sounded reasonably good throughout.

Mezzo Sarah Connolly gave a fully realized and detailed performance of the Composer with no flaws (even the high parts that usually remind us of the part's soprano character -- Lotte Lehmann herself premiered it -- were easily handled) that lacked only the divine fire of genius.

The real strength of the Met showed in its roster of bit players for this revival. Not just the nymphs -- Erin Morley, Anne-Carolyn Bird, and Tamara Mumford -- but the whole supporting cast sang beautifully and well. Most notable among the men were tenors Tony Stevenson (the Dancing Master) and Sean Panikkar (Brighella): Stevenson excellent as ever in character parts, and Panikkar, though still not wholly refined in style continuing to show a standout clarion instrument.

Kirill Petrenko was fairly routine in conducting the previous run of Ariadne, but did better this time: though still generally taking the textural approach to the piece (like Kempe's famous recording), Petrenko didn't lack much in dramatic momentum, and brought some sensitivity to the final half-hour of Wagnerian crescendo.

*     *     *

Next May's return brings more star power, particularly in the pit with Fabio Luisi (whose Lulu this spring should be most interesting). But Stemme has become a remarkable singer, and her absence -- both in that Ariadne and in the season's Wagner selections -- is unfortunate. Of course, given last year's Ring cast shakeups, it's not impossible we'll see Stemme somehow. I'd love to hear her Walküre Brünnhilde.

[UPDATE 4/9: I'm told by someone who should know that Bacchus is not mike-aided for his initial offstage music. So more credit to Ryan, then...]


  1. Thanks for the write-up on Ariadne. I saw the prima, and I was blown away by Stemme. As much as I am a Voigt fan (especially pre-surgery), I would LOVE to hear Stemme's Brunnhilde.

  2. All in on Stemme - underwhelming in 99 and absolutely amazing at this juncture. I have a number of reservations about Met casting decisions in the past half decade or so but her absence from the roster is one of the most unforgivable. Also hers is, perhaps more than any other voice I'm familiar with today (obviously I haven't come close to hearing them all), one that needs to be heard live to be appreciated as the YouTube and internets really do not give anything resembling a good approximation. Would add a caveat that we heard her Salome last year and while impressed neither of us was quite as astonished as we were with her Ariadne.

    I too like Voigt on occasion but would pay a lot of $$ to trade her for Stemme (would also kinda prefer to swap Pape for Bryn if we can only have one). Of course, Voigt has already cancelled her Vienna Brunh'des and BT pulled out of the ROH Ring. Jimmy isn't, unfortunately in the best of health. We just got our tickets for two performances this week but stay tuned.

    Speaking of casting complaints: next year's Ariadne. Is it really necessary to have Urmana. She's fine but she's around all the time and I can think of at least two alternatives (one of whom has been scarce lately, one never graced the Met stage - both quite superb recently in Europe) who would be far preferable.

  3. Whom do you have in mind, marcillac?

    I agree on Urmana. Of course, most of the sopranos I'd like to see as Ariadne (would love to hear Harteros do it) don't sing the part, perhaps for lack of demand. Ditto the Composer.

  4. Uramana is here constantly. Harteros would be great, to be sure. I'm not sure if she sings the role. Apprapos of her, I don't think there are plans to have her at the Met in the next few seasons. Obviously the management is aware of her and it is a huge failure on their part not to schedule her for something.

    One of the people I was thinking of specifically is Emily Magee. I think she is generally underrated but she does seem to be having an active and fairly prominent career in Europe. Her absence from the Met roster generally is one of the items I was referring to in my complaint above but she would especially good in Ariadne, a role she's had some success with, and would offer some nice variety to supplement what otherwise would appear to be an excellent cast.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.