Desert island DVD
This is a performance I never thought I’d see. This 2003 Met performance of Ariadne auf Naxos was filmed, but got tied up in some kind of (legal?) dispute and never televised, and I had long written it off as being tucked away in a vault, doomed to be “the lost telecast.”
So it is with great pleasure that I say that this video of Ariadne is not only available, but a must-buy for any serious fan of the opera. Despite an uneven production, the is strong enough to recommend immediate purchase.
Considering the DVD is being released as part of the James Levine 40th Anniversary box set, its appropriate to start with the man himself, and it’s a pleasure to report that this is one the maestro’s strongest performances of the opera.
Compared to the other Ariadne DVD conducted by Levine (also from the Met in 1988, featuring Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and the sublime Tatiana Troyanos), Levine’s baton is tighter, tauter and a bit more attuned to the forward momentum of the opera. In the second half, everything seems to lead inevitably towards the final duet, which Levine gives a stirring expressivity.
Elijah Moshinsky seems to have staged the opera as two separate one-acts only nominally linked. Although that’s a legitimate way of looking at Ariadne, Moshinsky’s output is uneven. The Prologue, with a drab backstage set and plenty of actors running about underfoot, is often annoyingly busy. Moshinsky seems to understand the opera, and his staging of the principals is generally spot-on.
If only he didn’t rely so heavily on distracting supernumeraries, of which there are far too many! The commedia troupe has more than doubled in size, and what’s more he generally fails to use them effectively. And why, oh why are there children in a burlesque comedy troupe? As a result, the slapstick of Zerbinetta’s four goons (or, as here, her twelve or thirteen goons) is far more distracting and unfunny than it should be.
On the whole, Moshinsky fares best in the opera seria. With its sparse set and striking 12-foot tall Nymphs, the fantasy elements are well at play here. ??Levine aside, the video’s real strength is in its leading ladies. Ariadne was always one of Deborah Voigt’s best roles, and she is absolutely stunning here.
In her prime and in glorious voice, she gives an absolutely stunning “Es gibt ein Reich” culminating in a thrilling high B-flat that is launched with enough power as to enter orbit. She also turns in a against-type essay in farcical diva business as the Prima Donna in the prologue. Turning on a dime from simpering sweetness to the wrath of God, the resemblance to Miss Piggy is uncanny. (Please understand that I am not referring to her weight, this performance being, of course, pre-surgery).
Speaking of surgery, these Ariadnes were Natalie Dessay’s first performances at the Met after recovery from vocal nodes. She takes some time to warm up, but for the most part, she is in fine voice. She is a layered, fascinating Zerbinetta, her cheerfulness barely concealing a vulnerable woman who is world-weary and cynical before her time. Her attraction to the Composer seems fostered primarily by his idealism rather than in spite of it. Their duet is far and away the best part of the Vorspiel.
It is in the second half where Dessay really shines. “Großmächtige Prinzessin” is less of a performance and more of a master class in how to perform that aria. It’s stunning. While it may not be the most technically perfect rendition, every word, every note, every gesture is given intense meaning. This is Zerbinetta’s credo, and Dessay understands the passion that such a woman must have and what a toll it must take on her. This performance features none of the fussiness or mannerisms that she often falls pray to. Hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, this is Dessay at her considerable best.
Susanne Mentzer completes the trio of leading ladies with one of the best Composers I’ve ever seen. Completely convincing dramatically (and visually plausible as a young man), Mentzer’s Composer has a wild-eyed intensity that makes it instantly clear how devoted he is to his craft. He is naïve and melodramatic, to be sure, but this is not the superficial ninny that is so often portrayed in Ariadne performances. Mentzer goes deeper. It helps that she is in excellent voice, and closes the first act with a superb rendition of “Musik ist eine Heilige Kunst.” Hers is a darker sound than what is usually heard in the role (which is, after all, technically a soprano one), but the sound is lovely and used exquisitely.
Out of the major roles, only Richard Margison disappoints, but then only slightly, and disappointment is practically a pre-requisite for Bacchus. The high notes do not come easily and he is far from subtle musically or dramatically, but he gets through the impossible role better than most.
The other men are more impressive. Wolfgang Brendel is a wonderfully neurotic Music Master, and it is a great pleasure to have such a link to the Wiener Staatsoper as veteran tenor Waldemar Kmentt (as the Major-Domo). Barely tolerating everyone around him, Kmentt gives every word the droll specificity of one who is completely above the proceedings. Among the smaller roles, Tony Stephenson is an exceptional Dancing Master and James Courtney is a hilariously pompous Lackey.
Nathan Gunn, shortly before he removed his shirt and burst onto the international scene, is a charming Harlekin. The clowns’ quartet (which features Eric Cutler, another future headliner) is excellent. The three Nymphs are individually pleasing (especially Alexandra Deshorties’ Echo), but do not quite congeal in their trios.
The experienced eyes of Brian Large are behind the camera, and although he cuts a bit too frequently, this is one of his better jobs. Both the video and sound quality are generally excellent, but there was a brief glitch on the second disk of the promotional copy I reviewed. My copy also had no menus, extras or subtitles, all of which I assume will be present on the final product.
There are several fine Ariadnes on DVD, not the least of which is Levine’s 1988 effort mentioned above, but this new disk seems far from superfluous; in fact, it is a strong contender for pick of the crop. In a dead heat, the 1988 performance would probably come out ahead, but we are extremely lucky to be so spoiled for choice, and the Met deserves a huge kudos for pulling this performance out of the vault.