Whether by intention or not, each of the three brilliant productions at Glimmerglass this summer feature profligate cads driving themselves and the women they profess to love to suicide, murder, and, in one case a “transformation” for the better. As well, each opera represented the finalizing of a revisionary work in progress by composer and/or librettist. Each original version, as perceived by their respective creators, needed a transformation of its own to win both audience and creator’s approbation.
“Ariadne in Naxos” (Ariadne auf Naxos)
Music by Richard Strauss
Libetto by Hugo von Hofmannthsl
English adaptation by Kelley Rourke
Kathleen Kelly, Conductor
Francesca Zambello, Director
Eric Sean Fogel, Choreographer
Troy Hourie, Sets
Erik Teague, Costumes
Mark McCullough, Lighting
Kelley Rourke, Projected Titles
Anne Ford-Coates, Hair and Makeup
Prima Donna / Ariadne – Christine Goerke
Zerbinetta – Rachele Gilmore
Composer – Catherine Martin
Tenor / Bacchus – Corey Bix
Harlequin – Carlton Ford*
Master of the Estate – Wynn Harmon
Agent – Adam Cioffari*
Dance Captain – John Kapusta*
Naiad – Jeni Houser*
Echo Jacqueline Echols*
Dryad Beth Lytwynec*
Brighella Brian Yeakley*
Scaramuccio Andrew Penning*
Truffaldino Gerard Michael D’Emilio*
Officer Cooper Nolan*
Wig Maker Thomas Richards*
Farmhand Matthew Scollin*
Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss’s reflective comic gem, Ariadne auf Naxos, here renamed “Ariadne in Naxos” needs no more self-reference than what is already there: an opera about an opera performance soon to be combined with a troupe of clowns led by a sexy burlesque dancer. Francesca Zambello, though, sees another way for a double dose of recursion: transpose the setting from Vienna to a rural outdoor opera performance in upstate NY (in fictional Naxos, NY as it so happens). Rubes, farmhands, corrupt deputy sheriffs, a rooster and a goat are thrown in a mix with the demands of wealthy “patrons of the arts,” self-absorbed opera prima donnas, and a motley lineup of leather-clad punk “carnies.” Of course, Glimmerglass and its environs are being caricatured here in Ms. Zambello’s vision, but, such a coup de théâtre amplifies the already delicious mix of von Hofmannsthal and Strauss’s cleverest collaboration.
Last year, Kelley Rourke’s sly adaption Verdi’s Un Giorno di Regno (“King For A Day”) was integral to that production’s success. For Ariadne, Ms. Rourke has rewritten the von Hofmannsthal Prologue in English, hilariously remodeled for Ms. Zambello’s purposes. Only in the second half — the “opera” proper — is the original German poetry preserved, and, appropriately enough, only for the classic characters of the actual opera seria plot; Zerbinetta and her commedia dell’Arte cadre, in opera buffa style still sing Ms. Rourke’s adaptation.
The original opera of 1912 was a much longer affair and paired with Molière Le bourgeois gentilhomme for which Strauss wrote the incidental music à la Lully. It was a flop and compelled composer and librettist to reshape the entire concept after a contentious four year debate. In the simplified 1916 version, Ariadne comprised a Prologue and the Opera. A wealthy man (here referred to collectively as “patrons”) commissions an opera from a young, terribly serious composer. His opera portrays the abandonment of Ariadne by Theseus on the island of Naxos. Ariadne, in her despair, awaits the god of Death. The Composer, her agent and the opera singers arrive at the estate ready for the premiere. The fickle patrons, though, have also commissioned a burlesque act led by dancer Zerbinetta and a corps of comedians. The assumption is that one group’s performance will follow that of the others’. There is a lot of bickering, and the matter is put to rest: both groups – in von Hofmannsthal’s conceit – must play together simultaneously. This infuriates the composer whose opera seria now will be somehow blemished with buffo interlopers. So the second act is a realization of the Prologue’s promise of a comically infused tragedy. Interspersed with Ariadne’s laments, Zerbinetta and the clowns try to cheer and console Ariadne in her grief. Thus, the entire opera is a sort of rondo. Ultimately, the demi-god Bacchus appears believing Ariadne is the sorceress Circe. Ariadne, though, imagines the Bacchus is Hermes. Along the way, Zerbinetta, a woman accustomed to many sex partners, gives Ariadne a few lessons in coloratura singing and how to be a serial monogamist. Bacchus and Ariadne, not fully aware of the other’s identity, fall in love and become “transformed.”
One of the most significant differences in Ms. Zambello’s production is a suitable change of gender portrayal for the Composer’s part. It was originally conceived as a “trouser role” – Strauss’s idea over von Hofmannsthal’s objections – where a mezzo-soprano portrays a young man. However, Ms. Zambello liberates the role and shears it of eighteenth-century convention as being a real female character. The switch up, of course, gives the romantic tension between Composer and Zerbinetta a contemporary sensibility. By the end of the Opera it is clear the burlesque coquette has had her fill of panting, sex hungry guys and has found her woman of choice.
Strauss’s limpid score is famously lean, classically proportioned, and a complete delight. Conductor Kathleen Kelly, who has held positions with both the Metropolitan and Vienna State Operas cherished every note of the opera and ensured that the chamber texture and imaginative counterpoint was never lost in the occasional “heroic” moments towards the end.
Christine Goerke’s career of late has revealed her to be one of Strauss’s interpreters. Her role as the Dyer’s Wife in this past year’s Met production of Die Frau Ohne Schatten was unforgettable. Ms. Goerke possesses a rare combination of sensuous musicality, sheer vocal prowess, keen interpretive intelligence, and a delivery that only a few Wagner/Strauss sopranos have achieved in the last two decades. Added to the soaring vocal beauty and her vibrant stage presence, was a comedic talent that was somewhat unexpected. When gloomy Ariadne is cajoled (and pawed) by the buffoons in their slapstick attempts to cheer her, Ms. Goerke’s threadbare sufferance and ultimate annoyance was very entertaining indeed. However, Ms. Goerke, as the despairing abandoned woman, longing for death, was never more convincing an artist than in her two grand meditations, Ein Schönes war and Es gibt ein Reich. Here, and through the concluding duet with Bacchus, her heroic delivery, demonstrated the remarkable differentiation of coloring in her burnished low range and the brilliant, clarion highs. Bacchus, who comes in late in the action was given a splendid performance by tenor Corey Bix. Although his voice had less projection than that of his paramour, his characterization was as good as can be expected given that Strauss never favored the tenor voice.
Strauss follows Mozart in the contrapuntal clarity and beauty of his vocal ensembles. In Ariadne, there are two: the four male clowns (Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldin and Brighella) and the female “chorus” accompanying Ariadne, ( Naiad, Dryad and Echo). Baritone Harlequin gets to sing the memorable Lieben Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen but in Ms. Rorke’s libretto it is:
Love and loathing, fear and hoping,
shining joy and dark despair
All these things the heart can bear and
hardly show a sign of wear.
Carlton Ford does an admirable job here as it requires both compassion and underlying irony. The clowns’ quartet, “Life’s too short for grieving. An unhappy diva is sad to see” is a delicious piece of writing; high tenor Brian Yeakley (Brighella) was especially delightful with his ornate descant flourish: “We keep on singing, we keep on dancing.”
Absent in the Opera is a singing part for the Composer who has a singular memorable moment in the Prologue. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin is superb as this passionate and headstrong young artist. The magical paean to music, Sein wir wieder gut!, (here, “Let the show go on!”) was breathtaking.
However, it is Zerbinetta’s great recitative and aria, Großmächtige Prinzessin (here, “Don’t think me disrespectful”) a coloratura recitative and rondo that Strauss coyly calculated to bring down the house. Written in an eighteenth-century musical vocabulary, Strauss aimed his formidable skills at unseating Donezetti as the king of bel canto. Rachele Gilmore tackles the extraordinary difficulty with absolute élan and effortlessness. Her voice is as flirtatious and sexy as is her stage bearing. Of course, she did bring the house down.
Strauss makes the case for two different heroines: the introspectively ardent, sensuous and heroic, and the extroverted, decorative and immediately gratifying. Which woman does he prefer? In Ariadne, it is an obvious tie.