The David S Operaworld blog

A series of commentary on the world of opera and of serious music hopefully with links to items of broader cultural interest, correlation with the subject at hand. There is plenty of room here for a certain amount of clowning around and general irreverence - not exclusive to me - but of course no trollers or spam please. Blog for coverage of the BBC PROMS 2010 - with thoroughly proofread/upgraded coverage of the 2009 Proms and of much else.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Met: Ariadne auf Naxos - that did not ever quite disembark from Naxos

Ariadne auf Naxos, to supposedly end us airborne to close cycle of three Strauss operas this Met broadcast season instead left things mostly feeling earthbound. Vocally, it was partly the most successful of the three this season – and orchestrally the most rehearsed of them as well. The last consideration, as explained below, is to be found an anomaly, since Kirill Petrenko (Met broadcast debut) is, a little better than routinely competent at it, less the natural Straussian than either Edo De Waart or Fabio Luisi.

Sarah Connolly, consistently the strongest member of this cast, certainly appeared to, as Composer, to have different idea in mind, as to the outcome of all this. Apart from Von Otter, she is perhaps the best singer we have heard in this part in a good while. Youthful impetuosity came to the fore with most supple tone, animated gesture and only qualm, a little question about support near the break. Once she is into high register, all is secure, confident, relaxed. Connolly also proved most flexible in switching color to darker for lower notes as precocious intent switches over to more serious by end of the Vorspiel. The several times I have heard Connolly, I certainly look forward to further opportunity.

Nina Stemme proved the vocally richest of the four leads. Little surprise is, for sure, to be had this way. As haughty prima donna, Stemme found the right lightness, insinuation, insistence, etc. Low notes proved luxurious in Ariadne’s opening solo; Ariadne’s invocation of her own name together with that of long-departed Theseus conveyed fine innigkeit. High notes were also fine, light enough certainly on a few of them and notably on others to sound heroic, hint of Birgit Nilsson with some steel to them. Overall here is a voice and manner though altogether more redolent of Leonie Rysanek in smoky color of Stemme's middle, low registers. Reason for the lack of Rysanek’s flexible expressivity in achieving a gleaming top follows below. Take for example, for sake of contrast (too), Rysanek’s Kaiserin or even for Solti, that of Julia Varady.

Something thus of the authority of a Rysanek then goes missing. This became ever more evident from “Es gibt ein Reich” through the extended finale to the opera. Once Stemme has someone more inspired on the podium, such as in Berlin last December Metzmacher for Salome final scene, then we have back more fluid line, nuance, variety of color and expression. Here, instead, the line tended to turn choppy, especially during the final scene of this. With the lyric line pre-eminent in Strauss’s vocal writing here, Stemme’s fullness of sound in Ariadne simply became too unvarying before the end of Saturday’s broadcast.

There is something to admire in how single-minded a conception of Ariadne this is, but it is perhaps also one that never transforms or gets to do so. Here was an Ariadne who perhaps closed with as much incomprehension as same character opens with in this opera. The fullness of tone heard from the stage of the Met did not quite effectively compensate for some lack of emotional warmth or engagement and also freedom to yield to more abandon needed toward end of the final scene with Bacchus.

Kathleen Kim, first heard on Met broadcast two months ago of Tales of Hoffman as Olympia, made a perky Zerbinetta, one charming in terms of personality and determination, but of only qualified charm vocally. Here the problem, in this thoroughly elaborate Janus face of an opera was with Kim close to being opposite that of Stemme. Kim would get distracted by musical demands and text and at times would forget the most proper or pleasing placement of voice, causing muscles to constrict, tone to thin. As even the big aria progressed – “Grossmachtiger Prinzessin” – Kim wised up quite rapidly, but even late into it suffered still some lapse. Agility for getting over most of the notes was there – using the standard version of the aria. In easier passages such as duet with Connolly in the Prologue, Kim left a warm, endearing, most human and realistic impression as leader of the players.

Without better help from the podium, what lapses did occur made something mundane out of Zerbinetta, ultimately making somewhat two-dimensional her character and situation. For how difficult Zerbinetta is, this can occur quite often. Even set to mundane words, the way such get set to music contains some element of magic or of the otherworldly - that as in many other instances nowadays, got missed here. Something did not yet again quite succeed at tapping into the divine - for things having been brought down to earth simply too much. As engagement with a still very young singer on verge of what could become a major career, it was still good to hear Kim in this.

Canadian tenor Lance Ryan made his Met broadcast debut as Bacchus. His diction was good, clean, and incisive; he got his lines out as Bacchus with their full intent. However, his tone tended to be almost always of the tightly squeezed variety – not for part to rest content to sit comfortably in the middle, except for a few passages at which Ryan succeeded the most. His tone quality did not match favorably with that of Stemme - her sound certainly something of an indulgence heard next to his. Though weak on legato, Ryan sounded forth an intelligent Bacchus - if hardly ever ingratiating tonally or musically. He did not make anything particularly inviting to hear really at all; seldom has any tenor been able, flexible to do so with this music. This Bacchus thus did not sound as anybody from whom true hope for liberation or chance at freedom might ever come.

All three equally effective, Jochen Schmeckenbecher exuded fine authority as the Music Master, Tony Stevenson lithe grace as Dancing Master, and Michael Devlin deftly pointed etiquette as the speaking Major-domo. James Courtney was close to equally fine as the Lackey, but lacking, with age, some vocal steadiness. Of the four players accompanying Zerbinetta, the two tenors were best - especially the sweetly dark color toned Brighella of Sean Panikkar alongside nicely contrasting Scaramuccio (Mark Schowalter). Less convincing were Markus Werba, excessively belaboring the text of his simple lines as Harlekin close to point of there being no line left to sustain them, and Joshua Bloom as a stiff and somewhat wobbly Truffaldino. The quartet of men did not particularly blend well. As the three nymphs, we had three voices that did blend well, but both a little unsupported on the very highest pitches (Anne Carolyn Bird), and on the very lowest (Tamara Mumford), with Erin Morley the fine Echo in-between. When their trio was at greatest ease, a silvery impression, as should be, still made itself known.

This leaves Kirill Petrenko, leading the altogether seldom inspired Moshinsky production of this at the Met. The Omsk born debutant, it certainly sounded, received more rehearsal time for his chamber forces to lead this than did two more natural Straussans the Met has already had this season in Fabio Luisi and Edo De Waart, for Elektra and Rosenkavalier. For each of them being more the natural at this, they each dropped hints numerous places in each of the above, especially Luisi during Elektra.

One never got less than routinely competent leadership from Petrenko, apart from perhaps a couple of glaring errors. Much of the Prologue rustled by both efficiently and nicely for much of it. Both the lightness and sweep that should set it off was, however, not quite all it should have been. Petrenko had inspiring help from Schmeckenbecher, Stevenson, the Zerbinetta of Kathleen Kim her, and especially from Sarah Connolly.

Clipping of accents for music to do with either Composer or the comedians worked to varying degrees mal-apropos. It also found Kathleen Kim pushed to an unmusical extent for one isolated passage in her great aria. Petrenko also crudely pushed Lance Ryan through series of bench-pressed 'Circe's, just for purpose it seems to save Bacchus from near-strangulation. Here overall from Petrenko was indeed however orgiastic excitement, when compared to Robert Spano’s attempt at Ariadne auf Naxos from Lyric of Chicago (Deborah Voigt in title role fine, likely more so for Sinopoli) several seasons back. In more proper context, the Bacchus/Ariadne scene in each eventually became little better than Iphigenia in Brooklyn, which the Met in effect produces next season, starring Susan Graham in the title role. In fact, the real Iphigenia in Brooklyn could be better. One should wish for Hector Berlioz to still be around to defend Gluck, perhaps Richard Strauss as well.

Getting back to the point here, Petrenko’s concept of contrast between heated ardor of Bacchus at winning over Ariadne and subdued reply from Mozartean trio of nymphs was as streamlined, lacking in either dynamics or expression as I have heard such transition, at times back and forth, being made. So much then for contrast between the Apollonian and Bacchian aspects of even Strauss’s writing for especially this most eloquent finale.

Transformation indeed! Could Kirill Petrenko really be who Bayreuth picked for their 2013 Ring? Here at the Met was enough craft to halfway pull Ariadne off, especially had the cast been better, but little in the way of imagination, wit or lightness. Such clearly revealed Petrenko slightly outside of his fach, perhaps significantly so. The Met with Kathleen Kim repeating as Zerbinetta and Robert Dean Smith as potentially a real Bacchus gets to try again in 2010-11 with Fabio Luisi at the helm.

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