HGO thrives on oddities of Ariadne auf Naxos

05.03.11
Patrick Summers
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

With its unusual format and unorthodox complement of leading roles, Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera that plays by its own rules.

Whether you view its particulars as winsome eccentricities or thorny challenges, Houston Grand Opera's current production turns all to its advantage. Director John Cox captures the work's backstage-at-the-opera atmosphere with charm and cunning detail. Patrick Summers conducts with aplomb, delivering an orchestral performance of seamless integrity and elegant style. And in the leading roles, Susan Graham, Laura Claycomb, Christine Goerke and Alexey Dolgov each meet the unique demands with distinction.

The offbeat aspects stem from the opera's structure. Its first part is a 45-minute prologue that sets up the situation. Into a private theater in the home of the richest man in 17th-century Vienna come both a commedia dell'arte troupe and an opera company, to entertain at a dinner party. When the Major-domo announces their host's arbitrary decision that both shows are to be performed simultaneously, pandemonium reigns, and the idealistic opera composer despairs.

The work's second part is the 90-minute opera seria itself, depicting the mythological heroine Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the isle of Naxos, yearning for death — yet ultimately restored to life and love by the arrival of the god Bacchus. However, given the host's command, this grand saga unfolds with the playful intrusions and commentary of mischievous Zerbinetta and her troupe.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto juxtaposes opposing views of life and love: Zebinetta's humorously lighthearted and devil-may-care take, versus Ariadne's earnest, self-dramatizing and heroic perspective.

Among the quirks: The prologue stresses recitative and spoken dialogue, while the opera occupies another musical landscape entirely, peaking in Zerbinetta's stratospheric coloratura showpiece and capped by a grandiose 20-minute duet by Ariadne and Bacchus. One lead, the Composer, appears only in the Prologue, while Bacchus doesn't really sing till that extended closing scene, when he must deliver continuously.

Cox's ingenious stage direction, along with Summers' forceful conducting and the HGO orchestra's consistently suave handling of the score, brings cohesion to the work's somewhat-scattered opportunities.

Susan Graham exudes vigor and boyish dash as the Composer. Graham's accomplished mezzo and fluent legato phrasing seem made for the role. She captures the lad's impetuous, self-dramatizing, headstrong aspects with panache, conveying both the naiveté and nobility of his youthful idealism.

Laura Claycomb sings Zerbinetta with sparkling vivacity and technical virtuosity, making her showpiece aria a dazzling showstopper. Claycomb anchors Zerbinetta's teasing flirtatiousness with underpinnings of womanly warmth and understanding, all projected with irrepressible zest.

Christine Goerke's nobly tragic Ariadne drives home the study in contrasts, impressing with her dramatically charged singing and grand manner. Her soprano is a plush instrument, its substantial heft and dark colorations well-matched to Ariadne's ocean of soulful passion.

As Bacchus, Alexey Dolgov's gleaming tenor and easeful nobility make his 11th-hour arrival as Ariadne's rescuer seem a natural conclusion rather than a dramatic non-sequitur. Despite a tightness to a few of his tight notes, he upholds his substantial share of that big and demanding closing scene with Ariadne.

Kiri Deonarine, Catherine Martin and Brittany Wheeler bring accomplished voices to the trio of nymphs attending Ariadne. Boris Dyakov brings amusing pep and punch to Harlequin. Jon Kolbet dispatches the speaking role of the bossy Major-domo with curt precision.

Robert Perdziola's handsome production design contrasts the rough-hewn backstage world with the picturesque storybook look of the opera as seen onstage, in an Old-World production with period scenic effects. Cox and Perdziola contrive a grand coup de théâtre midway through the opera: basically taking the set apart and re-assembling it to give us the backstage perspective of the show unfolding, then miraculously reversing the perspective again so the audience is again viewing the show from out front. They also supply a final visual fillip that enhances the idyllic closing measures of Strauss' score in inspired fashion.