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A Meditation on Life, Love and Creativity

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
05/07/2011 -  and May 10, 13, 2011
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos
Violeta Urmana (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), Joyce DiDonato (Composer), Robert Dean Smith (Bachus), Audrey Luna (Najade), Tamara Mumford (Dryade), Lei Zu (Echo), Tony Stevenson (Dancing Master), Thomas Allen (Music Master), Paul Appleby (Brighella), Mark Schowalter (Scaramuccio), Vasili Ladyuk (Harlekin), Joshua Bloom (Truffaldin), James Courtney (Lackey), Noah Baetge (Officer), David Crawford (Wigmaker), Michael Devlin (Major-Domo)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (Conductor)
Elijah Moshinsky (Production), Michael Yeargan (Set and Costume Design), Gil Wechsler (Lighting Design), Laurie Feldman (Stage Director)

V. Urmana and Nymphs (© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera)

In this 40th anniversary year of James Levine’s incomparable career at the Metropolitan Opera, it is a time of celebration, but also of tremendous poignancy as we watch the seemingly inexorable progression of his medical setbacks. Beginning last season, month by month and opera by opera, he has been surrendering commitments to conduct operas he loves. He’s held onto others, such as this season’s revelatory Wozzeck, and all but one performance of Die Walküre. For those of us who have seen him conduct the latter, his clearly painful labors seemed to be a breathtaking triumph of will over physical frailty. Just last week, the Met announced that Levine was withdrawing from all performances scheduled through the end of September.

Standing discretely in the wings (and often these days on the podium) is the Met’s new Principal Guest Conductor, Fabio Luisi. Luisi stepped in for Levine last season in Tosca under seemingly impossible conditions (no rehearsal at all with the entire cast present), yet the results were brilliant. He also masterfully conducted another Levine favorite, Lulu. This season, he substituted for Levine in the spring performances of Das Rheingold and also led a series of scheduled Rigoletto performances, the latter without benefit of a stage rehearsal. Clearly, the Met can depend on Luisi and is depending on him. Every time he takes the podium there is increased scrutiny, as well as growing audience and critical enthusiasm.

Luisi’s Met debut conducting Ariadne auf Naxos was particularly significant: It marked the first time since his appointment that he has gone through the rehearsal process with the singers and the orchestra, so that his performance did not have the feel of a rescue or a just a steady hand at a repertory house. Hence its importance in revealing what Luisi could do with the orchestra that James Levine built so lovingly over so many years. All Levine has to do these days is turn up and he is greeted with a frenzy of applause. Although Luisi did receive an appreciative welcome as he took the podium, by the time of the curtain calls things had changed. After a brilliant performance, his appearance on stage was met with tremendous applause. Just that morning, The New York Times had mentioned again that Luisi was the heir apparent. And the Met audience reads its hometown newspaper.

Luisi conducted a scaled-down Met Orchestra in a sensitive and beautifully calibrated performance, running the gamut texturally from gossamer threads of ethereal sound to a lushly powerful melding of woodwinds and strings at the end of the duet between Ariadne and Bacchus. His tempos were sensitive and flexible, as he lingered lovingly here and accelerated suddenly there. And he always displayed great sensitivity to the singers. The orchestra played superbly for him.

Ariadne auf Naxos is but a single fruit of the creative collaboration between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which began with Elektra. Their relationship was rather fraught, in part because of the vastly different temperaments and imperatives of the two artists. But what seem to be irreconcilable perspectives come together in this brilliant meditation on life and love, and the joys and travails of being a creative artist. It was Strauss’s idea to make the Composer, who appears only in the prologue (an addition when the opera was reworked after its unsuccessful premiere in 1912), a trouser role. He wrote it for soprano but it’s usually sung by a mezzo.

The Composer reminds us of Octavian of course, but also of Cherubino. For me, this opera has always been so evocative of Mozart for many reasons. He has shown, more than anyone, that the sublime and transcendent can coexist and even be illuminated by the comic. Also it feels rather personal: All the highs and lows, the joys and frustrations of a composer treated like a servant by philistine employers with money and status (but without appreciation for artistic genius) can be found in Mozart’s letters.

J. DiDonato (© Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera)

In addition to the critical and public focus on Maestro Luisi, there was much excitement over a Met milestone – the first Strauss role for Joyce DiDonato in the house. She has achieved great success at the Met as a Rossini singer, first in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, and, most recently, in Le Comte Ory. She also excels in Handel of course. Her tone was luminous, even in the declamatory passages. Her voice was rich and gleaming and her diction excellent. DiDonato’s extraordinary technical prowess comes with a marvelous stage presence and an uncanny ability to embody her roles, however disparate. Everything she does is part of and essential to the characters she creates. My colleague reviewed her Octavian in Madrid. I very much look forward to her role debut at the Met.

Violeta Urmana was Odabella when Riccardo Muti debuted at the Met last season with Verdi’s Attila. As Ariadne, she sang Strauss’s challenging music with a lovely tone and secure technique. With her regal bearing and searing sense of loss, she was also deeply in character. The middle and lower range of her voice sounded particularly fine, but her German was virtually incomprehensible. And she lacked the luminosity and the gorgeous gleaming tone of Deborah Voigt when she sang Ariadne in this production several years ago with Dessay as Zerbinetta.

Kathleen Kim is becoming a fixture at the Met. Earlier this season, she gave a stunning performance as Chiang Ch’ing in Nixon in China. As Zerbinetta, in a vocally punishing female counterpart to Leporello’s catalog aria, “Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” Kim’s coloratura was generally good. But she played the character as a mere coquette – without self-knowledge, without depth. She did not mine the role, as Dessay did, and thus did not communicate the wistfulness and bemusement essential to Zerbinetta’s character. It was simply unbelievable that DiDonato’s Composer would be smitten by such a shallow creature.

Robert Dean Smith was an ardent if somewhat strained Bacchus. The three nymphs sounded as lovely as they looked. Thomas Allen was a bit of luxury casting as the Music Master. All of the other roles were performed with verve and panache.

The 1993 production by Elijah Moshinsky continues to enthrall. Indeed, it’s as close to a perfect production as I have seen at the Met. It does full justice to the ingenious libretto and Strauss’s marvelous music. Michael Yeargan’s set for the opera seria is a magical dreamscape featuring three nymphs, suspended on platforms high above the stage, gliding about under a canopy of stars. The prologue had a very clever touch: In a cut out on the left side of the stage was a marble staircase, ascending to the unseen but surely opulent premises of the patron of the evening’s entertainment. The social status of the performers had a perfect visual metaphor. The costumes were stunning and the lighting by Gil Wechsler tremendously effective. Finally, hats off to the stage director, Laurie Feldman, for the impeccably choreographed physical comedy.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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