Love Potion Opus 60: Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Tanglewood, August 2, 2010

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Ariadne auf Naxos

Opera in One Act with a Prologue by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Music by Richard Strauss, Opus 60
1916 Version

Tanglewood Music Center Vocal Fellows
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi, conductor, August 1 and 2
Keitaro Harada (TMC Conducting Fellow), conductor, August 4

Ira Siff, director
Eduardo Sicangco, set and costume designer
Matthew McCarthy, lighting designer

The Major-Domo, Hans Pieter Herman (spoken)
The Music Master/Harlekin, Elliot Madore, baritone
A Lackey, Shea Owens, baritone
An Officer, Javier Bernardo, baritone
The Composer, Cecelia Hall, mezzo-soprano
Bacchus/The Tenor, Ta’u Pupu’a, tenor
Wigmaker, Justin Welsh, baritone

Zerbinetta, Audrey Elizabeth Luna, soprano; Christoph von Dohnányi (Hillary Scott)

Zerbinetta, Audrey Elizabeth Luna, soprano
Ariadne/The Prima Donna, Emalie Savoy, soprano
The Dancing Master, Patrick Jang, tenor
Brighella, Lawrence Jones, tenor
Scaramuccio, Martin Bakari, tenor
Truffaldino, David Salsbery Fry, bass
Najade, Deanna Breiwick, soprano
Dryade, Kristin Hoff, mezzo-soprano
Echo, Emily Duncan-Brown, soprano

Strauss was never more the musical conjurer than he was in Ariadne auf Naxos. With an ensemble of  thirty-seven instruments, including harmonium, celesta, piano, harps and percussion, a shimmering and transparent opera emerges and asserts its lean clarity against a perceived Wagnerian monumentalism. Even when Strauss wants his cake after eating it, and strives for a Tristan-like blossom in the second half (the one and only “Act” of this work, the first half being a Prologue), one cannot fault the ensemble for sounding a bit threadbare in its overreaching to the Bayreuth master.  After all, this textural contrast of light and heavy is all in line with the clever libretto of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which is an ironic comment on Love the Ideal and what we know as reality in our all-too-human relationships. Our fleeting romantic encounters, part of the everydayness of our sexual selves, are contrasted with Love, that mysterious and eternal bond that poets extol as our raison d’être. The cabaret characters in the play (Zerbinetta and the clowns) seem bound to the temporal and ephemeral love – an elucidation that Strauss takes for the correlative of the chamber element of this work; Ariadne and Bacchus, as visions of a poet (The Composer role in the opera) are symbols of the seemingly immortal qualities of love as a transforming force in life, imbuing mortals with the lasting values of selflessness, sacrifice, care, and, most of all, constancy. Yet, in the intertextual world of von Hofmannsthal’s play, Ariadne and Bacchus are both human performers and avatars of The Composer’s imagination. At some point, between the silliness and contrivances of the Prologue and the Opera-cum-Commedia dell’arte-within-an-opera of the second half, the pejoratives of casual encounter and the trivial banter of the sexes are transfigured musically to the sublime in Strauss’s score. Strauss, in an almost unparalleled way, is able to balance the light and fancy of his harlequins’ cabaret music, the coloratura-infused bel canto à la Rossini for Zerbinetta, with the convincing grandeur and heart-rending sweep of a late Romantic.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Richard Strauss ca 1915

Given the near rift between librettist and composer, the opera’s contentious gestation and reception, its two radically different versions (1912 and 1916), the disparate juxtapositions of styles, its middle finger gesturing to serious Gesamtkunstwerk, it is not hard to agree with what critics have said for nearly a century, that the masterpiece is “uneven,” or, yet, “flawed.” Director Ira Siff, in his programme notes for the performance, echoes these criticisms, but admits to the work’s great enchantments (and challenges). The opera is also something of a trap: it invites performers in with the promise of great fun (who wouldn’t want to sing a role or play in the pit – it sounds like great fun!), but puts everyone to a severe test of technique and endurance. Since the characters are so excessively differentiated, the theatrical events pass by in a kaleidoscopic and fragmented way. Mr. Siff has animated the many characters here in innovative and comedic ways, playing successfully into the libretto’s chaos, but never allowing the musical delivery to be thrown away. Siff writes that he rejected an overriding Konzept in favor of practicality, an approach that worked well. The utilitarian but claustrophobic backstage setting of the Prologue, which appeared to me as a utility room or basement, was replete with marginalia of a wealthy collector: a stacked rack of wine, a left-over Klimt, and a curiously melancholic portrait of Strauss himself. The set intentionally gives little space for the mayhem and banter of the Wigmaker, the Lackey, the Officer, Zerbinetta and her troupe, the Prima Donna, the Tenor, the Dancing Master, and, of course, the Major-Domo. While the set is congested and ugly, it made the beautifully roomy and courtly interior of the ensuing Act seem all the more grand and tasteful. Siff chooses to portray the opera-within-opera in the courtly mansion, rather than zoom in on the depressing desert scenery that has angered the mansion’s owner. The neo-classical interior with eclectic objets d’arte – a Henry Moore-like marble chaise, a giant conch under glass, and a neo-Renaissance painting – cannily gives us the impression that The Wealthiest Man in Vienna has a parvenu’s sense of art (after all, the music – comic and tragic – must stop for the 9 pm fireworks). The mournful Ariadne carries a self-help book, “Freud für Frauen,” easily read as “Freude für Frauen” – a clever touch. The appearance of the commedia dell’arte characters in familiar beach wear (inflatable tubes, goggles, fishing vest with lures, Zerbinetta in a skimpy bikini) may be influenced by Felix Breisach and Marco Marelli’s designs for the well-known Semperoper Dresden production in 2000. Since that production, several subsequent stagings have used this conceit.

Strauss gives the Prologue a practical purpose, in providing the chief singers a chance to warm up before the main business in the ensuing Act. The Composer, however, who never appears beyond the Prologue, has the most important music early on. It’s a “trouser” part for mezzo, and Cecelia Hall in tonight’s performance met Strauss’s challenging part with both musical intelligence and theatrical insight. It’s a role that must, over the course of a very short time, steer from self-righteousness, to a romantic bending of will (with Zerbinetta’s comely touch), to a practical coming to terms with inspiration and artistic compromise. Patrick Jang, the leotarded Dancing Master, played his part with ostentatious flair and charm. While light of voice, he won over the audience with his theatrical athleticism, which showed off his gymnastic skills. Siff makes the Major-Domo, Hans Pieter Herman, a bit of an arrogant hypocrite, ordering others around in a huff while being a model of bureaucratic ennui himself.

The heroic roles in the opera, Ariadne and Bacchus, require a convincing delivery, a nobility of vocal bearing, and the power to sustain the extended, near-Wagnerian phrases. Lyric tenor Ta’u Pupu’a had great presence, and a warmly

Ta'u Pupu'a and Emalie Savoy in Ariadne auf Naxos at Tanglewood (Hilary Scott)

burnished voice. That he was a powerful presence shouldn’t surprise us: in another life, Mr. Pupu’a (a native of Tonga) was drafted into the N.F.L. to play with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens. An injury changed his career, much to the benefit of classical music. Soprano Emalie Savoy, a native of Schenectady, New York, sang Ariadne’s rich and melancholic role with a perfect balance of luminosity and solemnity. It’s a role that is almost always accompanied by harmonium – Strauss’s probable homage to Monteverdi. A beauty to behold on stage, Ms. Savoy carefully held her vocal intensity in proper reserve: her “Es gibt ein Reich,” was superbly shaped, lovely, and memorable.  Harlekin is an important role, most notably for the aria, “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen.” While somewhat haltingly paced by Maestro Dohnányi, baritone Elliot Madore (who also played the Music Master in the Prologue) gave a winning performance. The tenderness and seriousness of this wonderful aria contrast with his role as vaudevillian roué, focused on the sparkling and sexy Zerbinetta. Audrey Elizabeth Luna delivered this coloratura role – one of the most difficult in the literature – with extraordinary panache and a breathtaking technique. Ms. Luna, a petite and attractive performer, captures all of what Zerbinetta is: a woman of the moment, a lover and user of men, a flirt who loves life and cares little for commitment or devotion; her vocal acrobatics in every way persuade us that, in Strauss’s erotic imagination, Zerbinetta must be a sexual acrobat as well. Ms. Luna tackled the pyrotechnic Recitativ und Arie, “Großmächtige Prinzessin. . .So war es mit Pagliazzo,” with sexy ease and vocal precision. It was a delight to bear witness, one might say, to this Luna as a dazzling vocal meteor shower.

I must admit to being a junkie for the harlequin ensemble, “Es gibt, ob Tanzen, ob Singen tauge, von Tränen zu trocknen ein schönes Auge.” It’s a disarming cabaret polka, rollicking, mit Schlag, yet masterfully contrapuntal and vocally intricate. Strauss plays with us with his harmonic tricks: he repeats a refrain in F-Major, with a predictable um-pah of C7 to F, subdominant phrases in Bb – everything you’d expect to hear in a beer hall. Then, once we’re suitably prepared, in the last refrain, he tosses in unexpected Eb and Db major chords – a splash of surprising color. It twists one’s head. While these harmonic delights proceed, the highest tenor in the pack, Brighella, sings a florid descant, “Doch wie wir tanzen, doch wie wir singen.” It’s a moment of sinful pleasure:  J. S. Bach meets Louis Moreau Gottschalk! Tenors Lawrence Jones and Martin Bakari with bass David Salsbery Fry do great justice  to this wonderful moment. Naiad, Dryad, and Echo – Deanna Breiwick, Kristin Hoff, and Emily Duncan-Brown – seen as fluffy conventions from classical opera, sing some of the most haunting music in the entire work. Strauss ambiguously eyes them sarcastically, yet pays homage to Wagner’s Norns. Finally, Strauss quotes Schubert’s Wiegenlied – a lullaby – and gives this disarming song to the three Fates.

While many would declare Die Frau ohne Schatten, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s next work, to be their masterpiece, it’s hard to resist the effortless way the comic, the noble, and the heroic are combined in Ariadne, which amounts to a tour de force. Ira Siff delivered a thoughtful and witty conception tonight; Christoph von Dohnányi, one of the great living Strauss conductors, allowed us hear every single thread of Strauss’s colorful tapestry. The young singers and instrumentalist, perhaps given one of the great challenges in modern opera, gave us an Ariadne that can stand beside the finest.

2 thoughts on “Love Potion Opus 60: Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Tanglewood, August 2, 2010

  1. I’m very proud of my little brother and his success. Love you Ta’u keep up the good work and best wishes and many blessings to you.

  2. Aloha, Malie tamasi’i meihe kele’amaka.’oku fai ai ‘ae polepole ha memipa hotau ki’i famili masiva kuo ne fai me’a ketau laukau ai.pea ‘oku tau fakafeta’i koe taleniti ‘oku fakakoloa ‘aki koe ‘ehe ‘Otua , ‘oku ke hanga ‘o faka’aonga’i ki he lelei taha ‘ofa ke fakatapuaki’i ‘e he ‘Otua mone tataki ai pe ho hala moe ngaue ‘oke ke fai. lotu moe ‘ofa meihe Toetu’u family.

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