Glimmerglass’s ‘Ariadne in Naxos’ a powerful showcase for a powerhouse soprano
Christine Goerke raises the roof in this unforgettable aural experience
Paradise, at least for lovers of Richard Strauss and the female voice, came to the Glimmerglass Festival this week with its production of Ariadne in Naxos.
In the title role, soprano Christine Goerke (the festival’s Artist in Residence this season) delivered a majestic performance that combined a resonant, rolling sound with incredible range, flexibility and control. To hear her powerhouse voice in an opera house seating only 900 was an unforgettable aural experience.
Goerke also proved to be a delightful comedian, embracing fully the foolishness of this comic opera in which Strauss sends up composers, divas, and “park and bark” singing (which in fact constitutes the final 30 minutes of the show.) Don’t expect much “barking” from Goerke, however. Her voice is all hot chocolate — so deep that at times she could be mistaken for a mezzo.
Ariadne can be a puzzler for those not familiar with its plot. Act one is almost entirely exposition and sung dialogue, with only hints of Strauss’s soaring melodic style. The wealthy owner of a country manor has commissioned a composer to write an opera as entertainment for dinner guests. At the last minute he decides to add a troupe of Commedia dell’arte players to provide some comic relief from the ponderous (he fears) opera. Then he orders that the opera and the comedy be conflated into one show, but within the same time frame so as not to delay a much-anticipated fireworks display.
Of course the composer and singers are outraged and insulted at having to incorporate these riff-raff Commedia characters into their tragic opera about the Ariadne myth. But they have no choice. Act two presents the resulting mash-up.
To make the plot more comprehensible to the audience, act one is sung entirely in English, supported with supertitles. In act two, the comic characters sing in English while those in the “opera” sing in German, again with supertitles for everything. The switch back and forth between languages was not as jarring as one might have anticipated.
Director Francesca Zambello sets the opera in a barn in Cooperstown — one with a passing architectural resemblance to the Alice Busch Opera Theater in which Ariadne is performed. We know where we are because the barn has a map of New York State painted on it, with stars representing upstate cities. Cooperstown receives the largest star. There is no star on the map for New York City. (Since Upstate New York does not exist in the minds of most downstate New Yorkers, this was a delicious inside joke.)
The first act is set “backstage” in the barn as the chaos of merging the two shows plays out. The second act opens to a bare stage inside the barn, with bales of hay serving as a “cave” for Ariadne on the island of Naxos. The Commedia characters are given plenty of room to cavort. We in the audience watch it all from the same vantage point as the guests of the manor.
While Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal offer some sly commentary on the travails of opera composers, and the low regard in which artists are held by rich patrons, Ariadne is at heart a singing feast in act two, with little of the social commentary found in Rosenkavalier or Die Frau ohne Schatten.
The leader of the Commedia troupe is Zerbinetta, a worldly-wise tart, costumed here as a sort of Vegas cocktail waitress in black-diamond patterned stockings with a black lace garter belt and colorful bustier. Rachele Gilmore as the Divine Ms. Z was as sexy as Shakira, the pop singing sensation. But don’t expect Shakira to sing Zerbinetta’s show stopping aria “Most Gracious Princess” — in which she attempts to convince the grieving Ariadne that all women suffer at the hands of men.
This aria is a benchmark for silvery-voiced, stratospheric sopranos. Kathleen Battle was a leading exponent 30 years ago. Gilmore was in complete control, if not quite as silvery in tone as Battle. She negotiated the ups and downs of the vocal line with confidence. She has a serviceable trill, and her highest notes were lovely to hear. The aria is a test of stamina — requiring more than ten minutes of constant singing. Gilmore passed the test and seemed ready for more.
Zerbinetta’s fellow clowns are outfitted in a variety of punk costumes designed by Erik Teague. Baritone Carlton Ford, a member of the Glimmerglass Young Artists program, was a strong-voiced and physically agile Harlequin. Of the four clowns he has the most to sing, and he was a solid anchor for the quartet. (His sidekicks were also members of the Young Artists program.) Bass baritone Gerard Michael D’Emilio stood out as a roughneck Truffaldino. Tenors Andrew Penning (Scaramuccio) and Brian Ross Yeakley (Brighella) were both a bit wan.
The nymph trio of Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, which harmonizes with Ariadne and sets the scene for her lamentations in act two, were a delight to the eye and ear. Again, all are Young Artists: Jeni Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacquline Echols.
The Composer is an Octavian-like pants-role for a mezzo playing a man. Here Zambello presented the Composer as a woman who is sexually drawn to Zerbinetta, and it is clear at the end of the opera that the two are about to embark on a steamy affair. Given Zerbinetta’s bad luck with men, it makes sense.
The Composer was sung by Catherine Martin, who made a memorable debut two years ago in the Young Artists production as Amneris in Aida. Here she was less impressive. While she has a big voice, the part is too high for her, and she did not produce her top notes easily.
Bacchus is Ariadne’s god-like love interest; he rescues her from depression and whisks her to the stars. He and Ariadne engage in one of opera’s most melting dialogues, which occupies the last half-hour of the piece. You either love this singing competition or you don’t. I do. That said, the part of Bacchus is a killer, almost impossible to cast. Even those who have recorded it struggle — such as tenors Gary Lakes and James King.
Corey Bix is beginning a career as a Wagner/Strauss tenor. He has sung Erik in Dutchman and he will be singing Heinrich in Tannhäuser. At present, the role of Bacchus is too demanding. While his performance was honorable, the strain was audible, and little of the part was delivered with ease. If Goerke was singing in Technicolor, Bix was in black and white — but I doubt any tenor in the world today could have matched her.
Director Zambello did a smooth job intermixing the opera and Commedia characters in act two. She put the Composer and Zerbinetta at a rehearsal piano, stage left, to watch the opera portion of the entertainment, allowing their romance to blossom.
Kelley Rourke was in charge of the translation and supertitles. Her creations often brought smiles. She is a significant asset to Glimmerglass.
Conductor Kathleen Kelly has had a long career on college campuses and at opera houses coaching young artists. She led a tidy, mainstream performance that let the work speak for itself. A few bobbles in the horns aside, the small orchestra performed well for her.
In the end, however, this was the Goerke-meets-Strauss show. If this is the sort of match that gives you shivers, rush to Glimmerglass to hear her boffo performance.
What: Richard Strauss’s Ariadne in Naxos
Language: Sung in English and German, with projected text
Performance reviewed: July 28, 2014
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8, 21; 1:30 p.m. July 28, Aug. 2, 17, 23