Focus is on Lise Davidsen but Isabel Leonard, Brenda Rae and Marek Janowski make the Met’s Ariadne an ensemble success

United StatesUnited States Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera / Marek Janowski (conductor). Transmitted live (directed by Gary Halvorson) from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 12.3.2022. (JPr)

Brenda Rae (Zerbinetta) and Isabel Leonard (Composer) (c) Marty Sohl

Director – Elijah Moshinsky
Set and Costume designer – Michael Yeargan
Lighting designer – Gil Wechsler
Revival Stage director – Stephen Pickover

The Met: Live in HD Host – Matthew Polenzani

The Music Master – Johannes Martin Kränzle
The Major-Domo – Wolfgang Brendel
A Lackey – Patrick Carfizzi
An Officer – Thomas Capobianco
The Composer – Isabel Leonard
The Tenor/Bacchus – Brandon Jovanovich
A Wigmaker – Philip Cokorinos
Zerbinetta – Brenda Rae
The Prima Donna/Ariadne – Lise Davidsen
The Dancing Master – Brenton Ryan
Najade – Deanna Breiwick
Dryade – Tamara Mumford
Echo – Maureen McKay
Harlekin – Sean Michael Plumb
Truffaldin – Ryan Speedo Green
Scaramuccio – Alok Kumar
Brighella – Miles Mykkanen

The 1962 Carl Ebert production of Ariadne auf Naxos lasted until 1988 and that by Elijah Moshinsky – which was premiered in 1993 – has just beaten its longevity. There is a bridge from one to the other as Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) revealed in a recorded interview: the crown she wears adorned the head of Jessye Norman – one of her ‘vocal inspirations’ – and was designed by Oliver Messel for that 1962 Ariadne and has been worn not only by Norman and Davidsen but also – amongst others I suspect? – Leonie Rysanek, Montserrat Caballé, Leontyne Price, Deborah Voigt and Nina Stemme.

Obviously seeing The Met: Live in HD (more information here) after the Covid-enforced hiatus has been overshadowed by world events and the Met’s general manager Peter Gelb has already spoken of how the company ‘opens its heart to the innocent victims of the unprovoked war in Ukraine and salutes the heroism of the Ukrainian people’. Before the opera started he expanded on an earlier statement by saying how ‘We join you in shedding tears of grief and outrage for Ukraine and many innocent lives lost and tears of pride for the courage and determination of the Ukrainian people. We also shed tears of compassion for the people of Russia who have been held hostage to the horrific acts of war.’ Gleb went on the remind cinema audiences of the Met’s forthcoming ‘A Concert for Ukraine’ before we had a replay of the Met Chorus singing the Ukrainian national anthem before the recent premiere of Don Carlos (review click here).

Richard Strauss’s opera need little introduction (some of this dealt with here) and no extra words of mine are really needed about an ultra-traditional production a month or so shy of being 29 years old. In his 1916 Ariadne auf Naxos – as Live in HD host Matthew Polanzani began – the composer has created a ‘mashup of low comedy and stately grandeur combined with some of the most dazzling vocalism you will ever get to hear.’ Indeed the work as conceived by Strauss’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannstahl, is comedy (commedia dell’arte) meets tragedy (the Greek myth of Ariadne), as well as the collision of the bourgeois and the aesthetic and given a show must go on setting. Commenting on the opera’s duality Davidsen commented how ‘There is something there in life, you can have the worst day, you can have the biggest breakup, the biggest loss’ and you must find ways to deal with it.

Opera traditions too get tangled up as we get pastiche Rossinian commedia interludes and a homage to Wagner with the Liebestod-like duet at the end of the opera for Bacchus and Ariadne, who confuses both love and death. We never get to meet ‘the richest man in Vienna’ who is spoken of so reverentially by his Major-Domo he sends out with his orders for the evening which culminates in the serious opera and the commedia dell’arte entertainment being performed together with everything finished for the grand fireworks display beginning punctually at 9pm. Strauss invites us to eavesdrop on the backstage business of primarily massaging massive egos and resolving artistic disputes.

I am sure much has been written before about the realism – and unrealism – of Michael Yeargan’s set for the Prologue: we are behind and below the stage and – apart from the props and costumes littered about – it’s all rather creaky and looks rather bare and dusty However, to stage right there is quite an improbably elaborate set of steps leading from this private theatre up to the mansion of the wealthy Viennese patron. In general the Prologue is all good ‘roar of the greasepaint’ shenanigans, though a little overly busy and overly populated. It all seems rather chaotic, then again, the reality of putting on a show can be like that.

In fact, Zerbinetta has brought along a whole circus, with a rather too-prominent mime, which will be trundled onstage for the Opera antics of the second half. That consists of the Composer’s creation with the commedia interruptions and is shown without any of the backstage world of the Prologue and is in no sense improvised as the libretto suggests. The now overly tall Najade, Dryade, and Echo are colourfully costumed, extravagantly skirted and trundle smoothly about the stage on their platforms against a backdrop of the constellations of a starry sky. There is a hint shown of Ariadne’s cave into which she will retreat and panels at the back frequently open so the troupe – and later Bacchus – can enter, as well as showing us other vistas (aided by Gil Wechsler’s subtle lighting), including the god’s shadowy ship. Moshinsky doesn’t have the troupe mock the opera and they are just performing their schtick to cheer Ariadne up. (To be truthful there is a lot of frantic movement in Stephen Pickover’s revival without everyone looking as if they know why they are doing what they’ve been told to.) Zerbinetta regales Ariadne about her philosophy of love, before fighting off all the attention she is getting and choosing Harlekin.

This Met revival is solidly cast and led in the Prologue by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s sheer perfection as she portrays all the idealism of the stressed-out Composer racing around backstage and hoping all will be as he wants it. This singlemindedness is challenged when the Composer and Brenda Rae’s Zerbinetta catch each other’s eye. In Gary Halvorson’s direction for the broadcast the coquettish Rae gets plenty of close-ups which shows her total involvement in the role, her great comic timing and how her character is no airhead and someone who expresses thoughts and feelings almost as complex as the Composer or Ariadne. Zerbinetta’s high-lying coloratura holds no fears for Rae and she manages her marathon aria – rising to high E – with consummate ease and great vivacity.

Deanna Breiwick (Najade), Tamara Mumford (Dryade), Maureen McKay (Echo) and Lise Davidsen (Ariadne) (c) Marty Sohl

As charming as Rae was there was a lack of real charm about Lise Davidsen – the focus of this revival – as the Prima Donna/Ariadne. Heard through cinema loudspeakers of course, Davidsen’s soprano voice poured forth gloriously and with considerable grace, however apart from her tantrums in the Prologue I didn’t believe she created – unlike the Composer or Zerbinetta – any sense of a real person. Probably more Moshinsky than Strauss, Ariadne seems to react too little to what is going on around her, though the jury remains out – from what I have seen of her – on how good an actor the statuesque Davidsen is.

Unfortunately Brandon Jovanovich never lets us forget how difficult the role of Bacchus is for a tenor. Oddly he sounded a little better offstage than on where we eventually realise his stamina gets sorely tested. There is nothing to be done acting-wise with this thankless character and Jovanovich doesn’t deserve criticism for any perceived stiffness.

All the rest of the cast do their best with what little Strauss gives them: Sean Michael Plumb is a warm-toned Harlekin and sang a lyrical serenade and Ryan Speedo Green, Alok Kumar and Miles Mykkanen completed an enthusiastic quartet of clowns. Deanna Breiwick, Tamara Mumford and Maureen McKay were wonderfully engaging – and obviously fearless – as Najade, Dryade, and Echo respectively, seemingly floating around the stage. Everyone else was equally committed including the veteran Wolfgang Brendel absolutely relishing the hauteur of the foppish Major-Domo (a spoken role) with the always eye- and ear-catching Johannes Martin Kränzle providing wise counsel as the Music Master, luxury casting indeed.

The distinguished Wagner conductor Marek Janowski – returning to the Met for the first time since 1989! – proves equally adept at Richard Strauss. There were some sumptuous sounds from the Met Orchestra and Janowski conducted with considerable spirit, authority, vivid colours, and just a hint of Viennese schmaltz, whilst generating an inexorable intensity during the final passionate duet.

Jim Pritchard

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