Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011

May 1st, 2011

Houston Grand Opera’s British general director, Anthony Freud,  introduced Houston audiences last year to Sir Nicholas Hytner’s imaginative production of Handel’s “Xerxes”, starring Susan Graham and Laura Claycomb (see “Xerxes” Unexcelled – Houston Grand Opera, May, 2, 2010).

For the weekend of the Royal Wedding, in which American interest in the cultural affairs of London was heightened, Freud brought the work of another British artist to East Texas, production designer and stage director John Cox, to revive his classic production of Richard Strauss’ intricately clever presentation of Richard Strauss’ tragicomedy “Ariadne auf Naxos”, again starring Graham and Claycomb.

The physical production of John Cox’ masterwork  is owned by the Lyric Opera of Chicago (which itself will mount it in Fall 2011 with an entirely different cast).

The plot of “Ariadne” concerns the juxtaposition of two seemingly irreconcilable artistic styles. A 17th century opera seria and a light  Italian comedy in the commedia dell’ arte tradition must be performed simultaneously to accommodate a sharply reduced amount of time allocated to the two performances.

There are, of course, two intended audiences – the one incorporated into the “Ariadne auf Naxos” plot – the guests attending a dinner and subsequent entertainments of the “richest man in Vienna” – and the real life one assembled at the Brown Theater within Houston’s Wortham Theater Center.

Perhaps the Richest Man’s guests would have limited knowledge of the traditions of the artistic styles being merged, but still might have enjoyed the result. Even in the Brown Theater one would expect many of its patrons to be unfamiliar with the work, yet, with Strauss’ richly melodic score, Hofmannsthal’s absorbing plot, Cox’s brilliant production and a world class cast, to find the work to be imminently accessible and enjoyable.

Notes on the Prologue

“Ariadne” is in two parts. The prologue introduces the creators of both the opera seria (its composer and his teacher, the Music Master, played by John Fanning) and the comedy (the dancing master, played by Rodell Rosel). In the opera’s prologue we also meet the opera seria‘s stars (the soprano playing Ariadne and tenor playing Bacchus) and the comedy’s dancing performers (Zerbinetta, Harlequin and the other members of the dancing troop).

The joy of the “Ariadne” prologue is that its comic themes are universal.  One need not know anything about opera seria nor 17th century Italian comedy to appreciate the interactions between the disdainful, condescending major domo (a speaking role, beautifully realized by Jon Kolbet) with the artistic professionals he regards as mere hirelings.

The Major Domo is not in the least interested in how his commands impact the the high-strung Composer who is shocked at being asked to modify his composition, nor the battling operatic diva and divo, intent that their parts not be cut.

The practical Music and Dancing masters both understand the adage about who pays the piper. Neither man wishes themselves nor their associates to lose the six month’s income that the Major Domo’s boss has agreed to pay. Their cool heads (and some flirtation by the coquettish Zerbinetta that coaxes the outraged Composer to descend briefly from his high horse) assure that the show will go on.

[Below: the Dancing Master (Rodell Rosel, right) explains to the Composer (Susan Graham, second from right) how to accomplish the merging of the opera seria and comedy demanded by the Major Domo (Jon Kolbet, left); edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Cox directed an engaging and swift-moving Prologue that always seemed populated by real life characters – each with their particular issues and neuroses, each with behavior patterns that conform to the backstage antics of countless other artists, whatever the time period. That we are in another era is established by the antique look of the winches and pulleys that operate the stage machinery, but we never have any doubt that we are privy to goings on that could occur in any theater’s backstage.

Graham’s Composer

The Composer. who is rather obviously created from the template of the adolescent Mozart, is a travesty role, akin to Cherubino in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and to Octavian in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier”.

An elite group of mezzo-sopranos, gifted with both the vocal resources and acting abilities to portray sexually-awakened young men, are associated with these three roles. But, unlike Cherubino and especially Octavian, the role is a comparatively brief one, appearing only in the opera’s prologue. But opera stars are typically paid by performance, rather than by the length of the role, so a production of “Ariadne” will usually entail a big budget cast.

As its Composer, the Houston company secured the services of arguably the world’s best – Susan Graham, who proves her credentials to us with her soaring explanations of the meaning of Ariadne’s fate. [For my interview with her, see: Return to New Mexico: An Interview with Susan Graham.]

Graham’s Composer is memorable in the interaction with Laura Claycomb’s Zerbinetta, who, obviously, in a less stressful moment, would have explored their mutual attraction to each other.

[Below: Susan Graham is the Composer; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of Houston Grand Opera.]

All of the comprimario assignments in the Prologue were well cast. Those cast members who appear only in the Prologue besides Graham, Fanning and Rosell were Samuel Schulz (Wigmaker), Michael Samuel (Lackey) and James Chamberlain (Officer).

Telling the Tale of the Princess Ariadne, Betrayed and Abandoned on Naxos

The stories of the  opera seria‘s two protagonists, Ariadne and Bacchus, are founded in Greek and Roman mythology. Although Ariadne is the Cretan Minotaur’s half-sister and has been the lover of Theseus who slay that family’s black sheep, one need not carry a ball of yarn to find one’s way through the labyrinthine Ariadne-Theseus backstory. The explanation of the plot by Zerbinetta, the heroine of the Italian comedy, is all one needs to know – Ariadne has been jilted by her old  lover and is upset by his abandonment.

The portrayal of the island of Naxos in Perdziola’s sets is felicitous. The nymph Echo (Brittany Wheeler) soars above the stage seated in a stylized cloud. Her sister nymphs Dryad (Catherine Martin) and Naiad (Kiri Deonarine) attend to Ariadne who is seated by a large jagged boulder. Realistic images of waves move in the distance.

A bit about the Bacchus backstory

Prior to stumbling across the Island of Naxos, the God Bacchus has been under the spell of the sorceress Circe, who has administered magic potions that have confused and disoriented him. Therefore, in the opera, Ariadne and Bacchus are talking past each other – she expecting the God of Death, he assuming that this is yet another mind-addling Circean trick. But their love is pre-ordained, and they will sing as blissfully, to melodies that seem to me inspired by and almost as beautiful as those in the awakening scene of Bruennhilde in Wagner’s “Siegfried”.

The Cox stage magic, operating in the context of the clever sets and costumes of Robert Perdziola, effective as it is in the Prologue, is transformative in presenting the hybridized operatic creation that the Major Domo’s decree has wrought. Those who attend the performance will note that the Point of View can suddenly shift from that of the Brown Theater audience to that of the Richest Man’s dinner party in an instant.

One might also become conscious that the performance works on various levels. When you approach the work, you can, for instance, take Ariadne as a stock subject for opera seria who perhaps is interchangeable with several other Greek myths in which a disconsolate woman eventually finds love, or find meaning in how Hofmannsthal treats the mythical Ariadne’s particular relationships with Theseus (who abandoned her) or Bacchus (who, in a case of mistaken identity rescued her).

Goerke’s Ariadne

But Cox proves that playing the plot of the opera seria straight, one can see the genius of the hybrid work. The part of Ariadne is often sung by a dramatic soprano, usually one who has roles like Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” in her repertory. Houston’s Ariadne, Christine Goerke, has a formidable range that encompasses both soprano and mezzo roles in Wagner and Verdi operas.

Goerke’s Ariadne never broke character. Even when exhibiting aversion to the antics of the comedians who arrived on Naxos, it was as an indignant and annoyed Ariadne.

[Below: Christine Goerke is Ariadne; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Claycomb’s Zerbinetta

For “Ariadne” to work as intended, one needs three prima donnas and Graham’s Composer and Goerke’s Ariadne impressively contribute their share of the threesome. The casting of Zerbinetta is crucial to the opera’s success. For one, she is responsible for the opera’s biggest showpiece, a 12 minute aria that many experts nominate as the most difficult aria in the coloratura soprano repertory.

Nor does Zerbinetta get to rest in the period before or after her blockbuster performance. In both, she has complex stage movements, including song and dance routines and physical comedy in her interactions with her commedia colleagues – Harlequin (Boris Dyakov), Brighella (Brendan Tuohy), Truffaldino (Robert Gleadow) and Scaramuccio (Nathaniel Peake). Nor does stage director Cox give his Zerbinetta any respite during the aria itself, having her balance herself on a chair, and hopping about Ariadne’s rock, even during the aria’s fireworks.

Claycomb is phenomenal in the role. I had seen her perform the role during her first set of Zerbinettas in 2002 at San Francisco Opera (also in the John Cox production) and she amazes even more now in the Houston revival.

[Below: Laura Claycomb as Zerbinetta; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Dolgov’s Bacchus

I had looked forward to the portrayal of Bacchus by Alexei Dolgov, who had so impressed me when he sang the role of Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca” last season at Houston Grand Opera (see A New “Tosca” for Houston Grand Opera – January 30, 2010). As Bacchus, it seemed to me that his fine spinto voice was of lighter weight than I was used to in the part. (I had seen, for example, the Wagnerian heldentenors Jess Thomas, James King and William Johns, sing this role in San Francisco.)

Even so, Dolgov held his own in the role, presenting a dazed hero, quite willing to lose himself in an affair with his new lover, who, presumably, should prove much less dangerous than his previous entanglement.

[Below: Bacchus (Alexey Dolgov, left) invites Ariadne (Christine Goerke) onto his ship; edited image, based on a Felix Sanchez photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

I have reported on the first of five performances of “Ariadne”. I recommend the Houston production without reservation.

For a discussion of a performance of “Ariadne” during the season of its American debut, see: Young Rysanek Promotes Strauss at L. A.’s Shrine – “Ariadne auf Naxos” – November 1, 1957.

For my reviews of other performances by Christine Goerke, see: Summers Leads Sumptiously Sung “Lohengrin”: Houston Grand Opera, November 13, 2009 and also,

“Die Fledermaus” in S. F. – September 16, 2006.

For my reviews of other performances by Laura Claycomb, see: Power Verdi: Gavanelli Leads Distinguished, World Class “Rigoletto” Cast – Dallas Opera, March 30, 2011, and,

Incandescent Houston “Midsummer Night’s Dream” – January 25, 2009, and,

Beautiful Singing in Bellini’s “Capuleti”: Pittsburgh Opera – May 3, 2008, and,

Claycomb, Podles, Banks Shine in Houston “Fille du Regiment” – November 3, 2007.

For my reviews of other performances by Susan Graham, see:

Berlioz’ Faust Fantastique: Lyric Opera Does “Damnation” – Chicago, March 8, 2010, and also,

Graham, Swenson, Prina Luminous in S. F.’s Stellar “Ariodante” – June 15, 2008.

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