Director Francesca Zambello, whose imagination seems boundless, can always be counted on to provide us with new insights into familiar operas. Her latest new production, created for the Glimmerglass (New York) Festival of which she is the General Director, is a reconceptualization of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”.
No part of the witty concoction by composer Richard Strauss and his august librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is lost in translation, but much is gained by presenting both the opera’s prologue and the commedia dell’arte high-jinx that occur on Naxos island in English. The mock opera seria characters of Ariadne, her companions Naiad, Dryad and Echo, and her new lover Bacchus sing in German.
[Below: Cast members for a production of “Ariadne in Naxos” await the arrival of their audience; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
The production has several other remarkable features.
First, the opera’s location is shifted in place and time from 18th century Vienna to a working farm in 21st century Central New York (not too far from Lake Otsego, where Glimmerglass is located).
Second, the character of the Composer does not leave in a huff at the end of the Prologue, but stays to supervise the performance, at first reluctantly, and then, with increasing interest in the goings on, passionately.
(This idea has been occasionally explored by others, but, to my knowledge, never with a composer intended to be a woman, rather than a man sung by a mezzo-soprano.)
[Below: Catherine Martin is the Composer; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival)
Third, Zambello consciously cast the opera with current and previous Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists.
If that might seem to be a limitation, one should consider that among the Glimmerglass Young Artist alumnae are an Ariadne (Christine Goerke) and a Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore) that one must consider of the first rank internationally in their roles.
[Below: Christine Goerke as the Prima Donna in the Prologue, who will play Ariadne in the opera; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
All of Zambello’s ideas work. The result is not only a theatrically valid presentation of Strauss’ work, but one that arguably deepens the impact of the work.
There are many, including artists who have sung the role of Zerbinetta or the Composer, who believe that a romantic attraction was brewing between the two characters.
[Below: Rachele Gilmore is Zerbinetta; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Any such romance, as traditionally staged, is cut short when the Composer, distraught at the revisions imposed on his opera, disappears after the Prologue.
In Zambello’s conceptualization, the Composer returns to the stage after the Prologue. As the Glimmerglass audience arrives after the intermission, the Composer is passing out revised scores to the orchestra.
[Below: Ariadne (Christine Goerke, rear, with holding hands up) is distressed at the arrival of Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore, front center) with her dancing troupe of Truffaldino (Gerard Michael D’Emilio, left), Harlequin (Carlton Ford, second from left), Scaramuccio (Andrew Penning, second from right) and Brighella (Brian Ross Yeakley, right); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Although in agony when she first observes Zerbinetta’s interpolated harlequinade, the Composer and Zerbinetta begin to notice each other.
The two characters sit together at a piano at stage left, both transfixed at the evolving relationship between Christine Goerke’s Ariadne and dramatic tenor Corey Bix’ Bacchus.
[Below: Although Bacchus (Corey Bix, left) and Ariadne (Christine Goerke, right) have entirely different expectations of their encounters with each other, they bond as lovers; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
However, it is not just Bacchus and Ariadne who are both personally transformed through their each fulfilling the needs to the other.
It is the Composer and Zerbinetta who are also transformed.
A purist may regret revisions of Hofmannsthal’s storyline (although the stage action is always true to the spirit of Strauss’ musical score), but in changing the gender of the Composer in the opera (an idea that might not have occurred to Strauss or Hofmannsthal), there are added dimensions to the story that transform in wondrous ways the meaning of the opera’s final moments.
[Below: Bacchus (Corey Bix, left) and Ariadne (Christine Goerke, second from left), who have achieved their happiness reflect on the emerging love affair between the Composer (Catherine Martin) and Zerbinetta (Rachele Gilmore); edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
Christine Goerke deservedly received a tumultuous ovation at opera’s end.
A similar ovation occurred after Rachele Gilmore’s display of bravura in the long, complex and brilliantly theatrical coloratura aria addressing Ariadne as a Great Princess, but also a woman, who, like herself, is simply in an interlude between lovers.
Kathleen Kelly conducted the Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra. Troy Hourie created the sets and Erik Teague the costumes. Eric Sean Fogel designed the choreography.
The inventive attire and dance steps of the commedia dell’arte troupe (Illinois baritone Carlton Ford as Harlequin; Pennsylvania bass-baritone Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino; Minnesota tenor Andrew Penning as Scarmuccio, and Kansas tenor Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella) deserve special commendation.
Ariadne’s companions on Naxos – Naiad (Wisconsin soprano Jeni Houser), Dryad (New York mezzo-soprano Beth Lytwynec) and Echo (Michigan soprano Jacqueline Echols) – added their beautifully blended voices to the island’s enchantment.
[Below Naiad (Jeni Houser, left), Dryad (Beth Lywynec, center) and Echo (Jacqueline Echols, right) assist the opera’s lighting technicians; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]
The prologue, located in a rural farm’s barn, was populated not only with those singing in the opera, but also with an amusing group of functionaries.
Instead of Strauss’ Music Master, there is an Agent (Ohio bass-baritone Adam Cioffari). Strauss’ Major Domo is the Manager of the Estate (Equity actor Wynn Harmon), Strauss’ Dancing Master is a Dance Captain (New York tenor John Kapusta).
Michigan bass-baritone Matthew Scollin is a farmhand, Florida tenor Cooper Nolan an Officer. Minnesota bass-baritone Thomas Richards is a wig maker.
I enthusiastically recommend the Glimmerglass Festival’s new production and cast, both for the veteran opera-goer and for those new to opera.
For my previous reviews of “Ariadne auf Naxos”, see: Goerke, Claycomb, Graham in Stylishly Accessible “Ariadne auf Naxos” – Houston Grand Opera, April 29, 2011, and also,