Reviewed by James Karas
The transmission of live performances from the Metropolitan Opera is back and a redoubtable production of Ariadne auf Naxos was available in theatres across Canada on March 12, 2022. We are amid an invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the event is uppermost in many people’s minds. Host Matthew Polenzani expressed his support for the Ukrainian people and the Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb did the same at greater length. He did not mention it, but the Met has cut off ties with Russian supporters of Putin including superstar Anna Netrebko. Bravo to the Met.
Elijah Moshinsky’s impressive 1993 production of Ariadne auf Naxos has been brought back by revival director Stephen Pickover with a splendid cast and it is a musical and vocal stunner.
Composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal had the ingenious idea of merging low comedy with high opera or commedia dell’arte with Mozarto-Wagnerian high art and, depending on your taste, you may find it exhilarating or a work with an identity issue.
In any event, the richest man in 18th century Vienna is feasting his friends to a lavish dinner and subsequent entertainment with performances of a tragic opera, a musical comedy and then fireworks. Time becomes tight and the host orders that the tragedy and the comedy be performed together lest time runs out for the fireworks.
In the Prologue we meet the artistes of the comedy and the tragedy feuding and throwing temper tantrums at the suggestion that their pieces are to be cut short and performed simultaneously with the other. The Prima Donna (later Ariadne, sung by the inimitable Lise Davidsen) has a fit and the Composer (Isabel Leonard) goes ballistic. But the latter calms down and the lovely-voiced Leonard sings an exuberant paean to the sacred art of music.
The opera of the title begins and we find the distraught princess Ariadne on the island of Naxos. She saved Theseus from the man-eating Minotaur in Crete and he promised her the world and then dumped her on a desert island. Lise Davidsen sings the melancholy “Es gibt ein Reich” (There is a kingdom) where she imagines a quiet place of death. Strauss and von Hofmannsthal find a way of getting her off Naxos in a happier mood than Theseus left her.
The orchestra and the superb cast give us an outstanding production but the star is unquestionably soprano Lise Davidsen. She has a luscious and expressive voice and she displays her low notes and her ability to leap to the high notes in a single phrase with impeccable ease. This is an Ariadne to take her place in the pantheon of memorable singers.
The final duet sung by Davidsen and tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Bacchus is a marvel of sustained vocal achievement and musical beauty. Jovanovich uses his vocal prowess and dexterity to bring Ariadne out of her catatonic morass and lead her into the sunset and perhaps apotheosis. Bravura singing.
Ariadne’s companions on the island are three nymphs, a Nyad (Deanna Breiwic), a Dryad (Tamara Mumford) and Echo (Maureen McKay). They are put on stands well above the stage floor and look as if they are wearing long dresses. They are beautiful and dramatic.
The comedians are kept busy trying to entertain the unhappy Ariadne. Their leader Zerbinetta (done to perfection by Brenda Rae) works the hardest. Rae has the movements and mannerism of a natural comic and she can sing. Zerbinetta and her talented and acrobatic troupe, Harlequin (Sean Michael Plumb), Truffaldin (Ryal Speedo Green), Scaramuccio (Alok Kumar) and Brighella (Miles Mykkanen) do their best. Rae sings Zerbinetta’s signature aria “O great princess” with flair and humour. She tells Ariadne that men are faithless monsters and she does not subscribe to fidelity by any measure. It seems that only a god can convince Ariadne.
The sets by Michael Yeargan consist of two areas. The Prologue is the basement of the house of the richest man. We see the large staircase on the side and that tells us where we are. For the scene on Naxos, we see the area for Ariadne’s “cave” with lighting changes and room for acrobatic activities by the comedians.
Ariadne auf Naxos has a complex score that reaches back into operatic history and with Wagnerian connections. Marek Janowski conducts the Met Opera Orchestra in a performance that can serve as a full concert.
Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss was transmitted Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on March 12, 2022, at various Cineplex theatres. An encore will be shown on April 9, 2022. For more information: www.cineplex.com/events/
James Karas is the Senior Editor - Culture of the Greek Press. This review appeared in the newspaper first.