Magazine article Opera Canada

New York

Magazine article Opera Canada

New York

Article excerpt

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos remains an acquired taste among Strauss's repertory operas. Those who love it (and I am one of them) can't understand the qualms of those who don't, who even among themselves can't agree on just what puts them off. Too much spoken dialogue? (I'd say it's just one character, and handled to superb effect.) Too much artifice? (That's another masterstroke, Strauss and Hofmannsthal straddling the line between the theatrical and the "real," the comic and the tragic.) Too long a final duet with that endlessly bellowing tenor? (At most performances, I'd be very tempted to concur.)

It didn't seem even a semiquaver too long at the Metropolitan Opera on Feb. 11, with Canada's newest in-de-mand heldentenor. Lance Ryan, singing Bacchus to the Ariadne of one of the world's leading hochdramatisch sopranos, Nina Stemme. I've seldom heard the duet's--and the opera's--climax sound so thrilling, with two Wagnerian voices commanding the music with seeming power to spare.

Ryan--next summer's Bayreuth Siegfried--had been scheduled to make his Met debut the previous week, in the first performance of this revival's run, but was sidelined by a bad cold. By this, the opera's third performance and his second, he sounded in fine health, singing this notoriously testing role with a clarion ring and even phrasing with a certain elegant panache. He didn't exactly make it sound easy, and the voice sports more metal than mead, but that's no real disadvantage in this role. What's more, he looked properly god-like and acted with a finely focused intensity, as if this beautiful castaway were the only woman in the world. Stemme, singing refulgently in far darker tones than one most often hears in a role usually allotted to silvery-soaring Straussians, impressed in her own way, one of them being humor: this was the funniest Ariadne I've ever seen, and one who kept the audience ever aware of the dual nature of the role--"this opera's special bifocals," as John Steane once so memorably put it.

This was an almost completely new cast in Elijah Moshinsky's still-effective 1993 production, and everyone held his or her own. Though I persist in preferring a soprano Composer (Lotte Leh-mann premiered the role), the fine artist Sarah Connolly looked and acted it to perfection and sang with admirable nuance and long line--if only the top notes had a touch more bloom! Kathleen Kim, December's crowd-pleasing Olympia in the new Hoffmann, pleased here, too, though her tiny stature and kittenish manner work against her in this very extrovert part; she sang prettily, but couldn't efface memories of the blazing star turns this production has seen in the contrasting forms of Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau. Markus Werba shone smilingly as Harlekin, Strauss's little gift to lyric baritones; he and his fellow comedians sang like a true ensemble, to engaging effect. Presiding over it all, Kirill Petrenko savored all the delicious colors of Strauss's chamber orchestration. He seemed as happy as I was for the trip to Naxos.

There are, broadly speaking, two very different kinds of La boheme: the simple, plain-spoken kind, with fresh young singers who have a clear emotional kinship to the characters they play; and the stellar, operatic kind, with established stars offering their well-oiled vocal and dramatic turns. In the Met's latest revival (seen Feb. 24), the latter finessed a cherishable reversion to the former.

That wasn't an easy feat, considering that its framework was Franco Zeffirelli's CinemaScopic 1981 production, which works very well for the two "public" acts but offers none of the close-up intimacy needed for Acts I and IV.And the cast was certainly no group of green youngsters: a superstar Mimi and a Cardiff Singer of the World Musetta--the leading ladies of Robert Dornhelm's fine recent film of Boheme--playing opposite an increasingly high-profile tenor and a charismatic baritone who's one of the world's preeminent song recitalists to boot. …

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