Cher Public

Ariadne auf budget

Since it’s put on in lavish productions at the biggest houses, sung by the biggest stars, since it wrings such a rich sound out of such a small band, and since the musical, formal and literary ambitions of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s great meta-opera are so very grand, it might be easy to forget that Ariadne auf Naxos is actually a chamber opera that just happens to demand a singer or two with bulletproof pipes. 

Dell’Arte Opera’s production, as part of their Standard Repertoire Project, was presented in a black box theater, with virtually no sets, and costumed on the cheap. The [reduced] orchestra used an electric keyboard instead of piano and harmonium, and didn’t quite have the panache to pull off Strauss’s more delicate moments. But you know what? It worked.

The stated mission of the SRP is to give rising singers a chance to add new roles to their résumés, and accordingly, the August 20 cast was a bit mixed, with a few well-handled but immature voices, a few powerful but unwieldy voices, a few all-around duds, and a lot of very awkward German diction.

The slightly hollow timbre of Juli Borst, as the Composer of the opera seria within the opera, was more than made up for by an impressively strong, precise delivery and a totally natural dramatic performance; Jane Shivick, as the Prima Donna, boasted one of those mighty voices I mentioned, but her sound seemed to disappear as she descended to the middle of the treble clef, and then lose control of the pitch when she climbed up to the ledger lines.

The supporting players were capable across the board, with the dueling ensembles—the commedia dell’arte boys who crash the opera seria, and the nymphs who meet them there—blending well (with the exception of Melinda Griswold as, ironically, Echo, whose luscious but oversized voice could have been reined in a little) and soloing honorably.

But I was bowled over by the incredibly high caliber of the two singers in the devilishly written roles of Zerbinetta—the commedia trollop—and the opera seria’s Bacchus. If Jennifer Rossetti lacked the sharp-edged precision that a world-class coloratura might bring to Zerbinetta, she had a beautiful sound, made sense of some very complicated melodies, and didn’t drop one of her three billion notes. Just as importantly, she played a complex and intelligent character with a radiant charm that wouldn’t have seemed out of place on Broadway.

And Kevin Courtemanche‘s Bacchus was nothing short of stunning. One of the more experienced members of the cast, to judge by his bio (San Franciscans saw him as the Brigadier General in Appomattox), he poured out note after note in a murderous tessitura, and each one shined.

While Courtemanche managed to squeeze a bravo out of me when he stepped up to bow (and I am not one to bravo), I should probably take this opportunity to give an online shout-out to Benjamin Spierman, the stage director who managed to make so much out of meager stage resources.

Every scene was full of detailed, energetic business: the young, blondish clowns, in color-coded vests and half-masks, looked like an a cappella quartet of box-stepping bros, and their slapstick was actually funny instead of wearying; Zerbinetta, in contrast to the aloof diva, pandered so much to the crowd during her grand entrance that she actually clasped audience members’ hands, beaming, on her way to the stage.

The set was two phony rocks and a writing desk during the prologue and two phony rocks and a few yards of blue fabric during the act, but the space was clearly and sensitively organized with some well-deployed lights (Scott H. Schneider, designer), so that even with the stage full of movement, the meaning of every moment was clear.

At the end of this staging, the Composer—harried in the prologue by his patron’s plans to mash up his opera seria with a lot of buffooning—appeared onstage, visibly moved by the chimeric piece, as if he’d needed Zerbinetta’s irreverent commentary to understand what his own work really meant. I knew just how he felt; seeing just a bit of the polished veneer sanded off of Ariadne gave me a new appreciation for Hofmannsthal’s words and ideas, and for Strauss’s intimate, yet monumental piece.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor

    Interesting ending. In Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production in Cologne, he had the composer commit suicide as the fireworks im Garten were on display. Earlier, right before Ariadne (reclining) shrieks “Theseus!” a huge staff was plunged between her legs (having descended magically from the fly gallery). It was one of Ponnelle’s productions, like his fabulous Munich Festival Pelleas, that did not travel to other venues.

    • Regina delle fate

      I saw both of them in the 1970s. As you imply -- a fascinating Ariadne and a mesmerising Pelleas.

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        How I wish we had a video of the Ponelle Pelleas. The tree as the focal point of the imagery later morphed into his great tree in his Bayreuth Tristan and Glyndebourne Falstaff. You see, it’s not always the recollections of the singers that remain for decades in the memory.

        • Quanto Painy Fakor

          The huge center stage head of the Sphynx in the unrealized Ponnelle production of AIDA became the enormous head in and on which he later staged Turandot. I say these things here for the ages, when some space traveller discovers the hard disk with the complete archives of Parterre.

          • MontyNostry

            Ponnelle’s Aida in London was really awful. You could tell he wasn’t interested!

    • Regina delle fate

      The “huge staff” you refer to was, I believe, Bacchus’s thyrsis! I’ve never seen a bigger one. :)

      • Quanto Painy Fakor

        Yep, neither did Ariadne!!! Ponnelle could be quite a devil. When he rehearsed his Despinas to do the bit with the crosisant as a symbol men’s infidelity, he always wanted her to bite off one of the tips with a naughty glint in her eyes.

      • Camille

        Theuseus’ Thyrsis is Thirsting!

        I am so deeply sorry but I have never met an alliteration I didn’t LURV, deeply, madly and passionately. Mea culpan repeat x 3.

  • petra chiusolegno

    What about the conductor? Shouldn’t his interpretation receive equal space to that of the stage director’s?

  • petra chiusolegno

    Sorry, a long German-speaking day -- I meant ‘to the stage director’s?’

  • Camille

    The conductor was Maestro Christopher Fecteau, a gifted musician and conductor.

    His group put on a one night only “Die Koenigskinder” in the John Jay Theatre last December, on the occasion of the (unrecognised by the MET) centenary celebration.

    Maestro Fecteau told us he reduced the entire orchestral score by himself to accommodate the means of the six to eight musicians who made up the tiny band. It was a quite fascinating opportunity to examine a little known or heard opera.

    If a real Bacchus comes outta this, well, it’s time to break out the bubbly--those guys are scarceR than hens’ teeth.

  • justanothertenor

    This instrumentation is not what I would call a chamber opera

    Woodwind: 2 flutes (alternating on piccolos), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
    Brass:: 2 horns, trumpet, trombone
    Percussion: timpani, glockenspiel, tambourine, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum
    Strings: 6 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 contrabasses
    Other: harmonium, celesta, piano, 2 harps

    But I guess we all have a different perception of such things…

    • Tristan_und

      Um, since the Met regularly plays Mozart with twice as many strings listed above, yes, I think you can call it a chamber opera, especially since a lot of the instrumentation is very light and delicate (you can hear the piano playing piano, for instance). And let me just say how great and transcendent (or even “transplendent” -- extra credit for correct cite) I think the piece really is.

  • I’m an idiot.

    I checked the program for any mention of it, but didn’t find Dell’Arte’s production was performed with a reduced orchestration. I’ve just found it, three-quarters of the way through the bio of conductor Christopher Fecteau: “Other arranging projects have included chamber music reductions of Ariadne auf Naxos, [etc.] for Dell’Arte Opera Ensemble….”

    Ariadne does use a small orchestra, for a Strauss opera, and so I mistook Saturday’s tiny band for the real thing. My complaint about the orchestra’s lack of “panache” should certainly be ignored, and Fecteau should be credited with a very canny and effective reduction.

    • manou

      Largo al Fecteautom -- for a good cut.

      • Camille

        Madame manou:
        I’m certain that Maestro Fecteau will get a good chuckle when he sees this. I’ll ttry to point it out whenever I can. .

        • coachconductor

          Wer ist dieses enzueckendes Maedchen? The kind words are appreciated, and we apologize for not making details of the chamber reduction clearer in the program.

      • coachconductor

        Hmmmm….no cuts, though I know that most Volk (myself included) wish for one or two judicious ones in the final duet.

  • I saw a lovely Lucia di Lammermoor at Dell’Arte a couple of seasons ago. They do a lovely job. I should point out that Juli Borst is a friend of mine and she’s a lovely person as well as a lovely singer.

    Off topic, Ib will be singing Dr. Bartolo in Nozze di Figaro with Amore Opera in October. They’re doing a Figaro Fest. Nozze is running in rep with the US premiere of Mercadante’s I Due Figaro, and then in December and January, they’re doing Barbiere.

    As a preview..

  • pinterplays

    As the shout-outed-at director, a few things:

    1) I’d gladly give up one of my 8 sentences…or even four…for equally lavish praise of my partner in Ariadne-ing, Mr. Fecteau…it was very much a team effort, as it should be.

    2) It’s kind of ironic to read the protest of the lack of mention of the conductor, though. Directors are so, so often praised, but often not by name. Several reviews of shows I have done will praise the ensemble or the acting, but not the person who led the ensemble. We always get trashed when we update badly or have a poor concept…critics need to be able to recognize what the director does that’s less obvious…

    3) yeah, a cut or two to the final duet wouldn’t be excessive…