Opera review

Washington National Opera's 'Ariadne auf Naxos' Opens at the Kennedy Center

OUT OF SORTS: Iréne Theorin sometimes sang so quietly that she was hard to hear. But when she belted it out, she was sometimes off pitch.
OUT OF SORTS: Iréne Theorin sometimes sang so quietly that she was hard to hear. But when she belted it out, she was sometimes off pitch. (Karin Cooper/washington National Opera)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 2009

The story of the German repertory at the Washington National Opera this year was supposed to be triumphant: the conclusion of the company's "American Ring" cycle. Instead, it's been about cancellations: the postponement of the "Ring," the ill health of the company's music director, Heinz Fricke, and most recently the trials of tenor Pär Lindskog. Lindskog's illness forced him to pantomime opening night of "Siegfried" this spring while another tenor sang from the wings; on Saturday night, at the opening of "Ariadne auf Naxos," he withdrew altogether. (Casting information for the rest of the opera's run -- it plays through Nov. 13 -- will be announced sometime Monday.)

Lindskog's absence, and Fricke's replacement with Andreas Delfs, hardly seemed to matter to the sparse crowd at the Kennedy Center Opera House. "Ariadne" is evidently not an audience favorite here. It's an odd but rather delightful opera, or rather an opera-within-an-opera, because it depicts first the backstage tumult of preparing for a premiere at a patron's home, and then the premiere itself. It has some great music and some dramatic flaws. WNO evened the balance sheet by presenting so-so singing and a rather nice production.

Art imitates life in "Ariadne," with its backstabbing singers and the hysterical mood swings of the young Composer, certain that his opera is going to be ruined (his fears mirrored those of Strauss's collaborator, Hugo von Hofmannsthal); and with the self-importance of the opera performance that results. Chris Alexander's production, which originated in Seattle in 2004 and comes to Washington by way of Montreal and Pittsburgh, updates the action to the 21st century: The unseen patron who has commissioned the opera is now a contemporary art collector with a private gallery (and his own Richard Serra).

This approach works well to underline the fact that these performers, creators and highbrow guests are enduring, perennial types. (Alexander brought this home by including real-life Washington notables in the onstage audience.) The only stumbling block is that the opera (written in 1912) reflects an 18th-century view of art as functional entertainment in its main comic conceit: The patron decides at the last minute that he wants the evening's two scheduled entertainments, the new "Ariadne" and a comic opera, to be performed simultaneously to make sure they end in time for a scheduled fireworks show. In the 21st century, art has been elevated to such an extent that no patron who commissioned an opera for private performance would ever, in my own experience of attending such things, dream of meddling with the purported brilliance of the result.

Still, Alexander's production was sure and often telling, particularly in the first half when Kristine Jepson's ardent Composer dominated the action with strong singing, and Gidon Saks, as the Music Teacher, was a firm anchor. Alexander proved canny in bringing out the flirtation between the composer and Zerbinetta (Lyubov Petrova), the leading lady of the comic-opera troupe, making them into a strong pendant to the two faltering leads.

For Iréne Theorin and Corey Evan Rotz, Lindskog's replacement, faltered indeed. Though Strauss inflated the story of Ariadne, a popular 18th-century subject, to veritably Wagnerian vocal proportions, Saturday's performance showed that a Wagnerian soprano is not necessarily a Straussian one. Perhaps attempting to lighten her voice for Strauss's high, shining vocal lines, Theorin, such a powerful Brünnhilde this spring, sometimes sang so quietly she was hard to hear; and when she did allow her voice out at full volume, the singing was sometimes strident and off pitch. Both of these traits significantly marred her showpiece aria, "Es gibt ein Reich." Rotz struggled valiantly in a role that terrifies seasoned tenors; it wasn't his fault that it was too much for him.

They were backed up by good work from three of the company's Domingo-Cafritz young artists: Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna and Emily Albrink as Naiad, Dryad and Echo, the spirits of nature who bemoan Ariadne's fate. They are sometimes plagued by the members of the comic-opera troupe, as silly as "Ariadne" is self-important, whom Alexander had wheeled in and out on a piano, hamming it up, or crawling under the dinner tables of the onstage guests.

Nathan Herfindahl sang Harlequin's beguiling little aria with a beefy voice; while Petrova, her voice hard-edged but capable, had no problem stopping the show with her own big aria, "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," in which she mocks Ariadne's laments for her lost love by pointing out that women always think that each love is the last, but are always ready to welcome the next god who comes along.

"Ariadne" also rides on its score, and Delfs, in the pit, if he didn't always illuminate Strauss's intricacies, generally kept it going in the right direction, although there were lapses like the imprecise, heavy-handed overture to Act 2.

The problem with "Ariadne" is that its ending seems to take the pomp of the opera-within-an-opera at face value, with Ariadne and Bacchus, after 20 minutes of heavy singing, going off into the sunset. Alexander did a wonderful job of closing the brackets around the play-within-a-play conceit, having Zerbinetta come out onstage behind the Composer, who has taken a seat to watch the end of his opera, and resuming their flirtation by repeating her line about the arrival of the next god. And then, through the picture windows, the promised fireworks went off.

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