By JOHN DeMERS
Is you’re not a lover of “pure music,” or a student of unexpected, shimmering orchestrations, it’s unlikely that Richard Strass’ Ariadne auf Naxos is one of your favorite operas. In fact, if I faced the multiple-choice “Strauss’ Ariadne is (a) a romance, (b) a comedy, or (c) a tragedy, I would demand a (d) option: none of the above.
Still, this strange tale that debuted in 1912 and now pretty much breaks into two one-act operas (one set in golden-age Vienna, the other in ancient Greece) features some incredible music to sing. All of the female roles, and at least one of the male roles, are given to actual women to sing, and Houston Grand Opera has reeled in two big-time Houston favorites to light the way. Divorced from its “none of the above” story line concerning a serious opera being staged for a Viennese rich guy – who then decides a comedy troupe he’s also booked should perform at the same time – there is plenty to enjoy in Ariadne auf Naxos. Most of it vocal. Some of it visual. None of it dramatic.
It always bothers me when male roles are given to women for no reason, though so-called “trouser roles” don’t make me mad if they do something for the story. Needing a guy and wanting to write women’s music is just not good enough. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, however, is more than good enough to sing the Composer, the young “man” who’s creating the serious opera titled Ariadne auf Naxos, about the namesake heroine from mythological times longing for death after being abandoned by Theseus – he of defeat-the-Minotaur-in-that-Labyrinth fame. Graham is believable enough as a man and sings beautifully throughout what functions as Act I, even though it’s billed as a Prologue. Not surprisingly, the “plot” doesn’t let her come back in Act II, which actually does say a lot about how lame this narrative is.
In Act II, the actual performance of the opera-mixed-with comedy, there’s a largely ineffective counterpoint between Ariadne’s mournful ponderings and the troupe’s bright twittering (no, not tweeting) about life and love, led off in the form of “girl talk” by a lovely flirt named Zerbinetta. The most enthusiastic ovation goes nightly to the singer of the opera’s only semi-famous aria, usually translated from the German as “High and Mighty Princess.” It actually is a lovely coloratura showpiece, handled with equal parts pizzazz and precision by Laura Claycomb. The audience laps it up, just like water made tastier by being found in the desert.
We can be excused for thinking “Wagnerian” when we hear Christine Goerke sing the long, rising, hall-filling notes given to Ariadne, since she was last heard at HGO as Ortrud in Lohengrin. And her lengthy duet with Bacchus, or Hermes or whoever that guy covered in gold is supposed to be, also echoes the climactic scene in Puccini’s Turandot, which was finished from notes after the Italian master’s death. Too bad it lacks Turandot’s painfully pleasurable movement toward a single climax. This thing keeps seeming to wind down, then start up again. Not a note is faulty, however, in Goerke’s impressive performance.
Tenor Alexey Dolgov does fine work as Ariadne’s blond-locked and gold-plated other-half, though it’s often unclear whether he’s trying to love her back into living or kill her on the spot. The libretto’s overused word “transformation” could use a little clarification here, or maybe Wagner was right when he talked about “love death” in the case of Tristan and Isolde. Three “nymphs” who serenade Ariadne right out of some ancient Greek staging of “Sex in the City” provide the evening’s loveliest harmonies, thanks to Kiri Deonarine, Catherine Martin and Brittany Weaver.
Patrick Summers doesn’t miss a nuance in the wowie-zowie orchestration, making the sounds of the HGO orchestra a wonder to behold. And with a boost from director John Cox and set/costume designer Robert Perdziola, Ariadne auf Naxos makes as much dramatic sense as it’s ever likely to – and looks damn good doing it.
Photos by Felix Sanchez: (top) Goerke and Dolgov sing their love duet; (middle) Claycomb flirts as Zerbinetta; (bottom) Graham “trousers” as the young Composer.