Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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The Enchanted Island

May 13, 2011

Violeta Urmana and Kathleen Kim Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

It’s the end of the opera season in New York and I’ve headed east to see things wrap up at The Metropolitan Opera. I like being here at the tail end of the season when the pending absence of regular performances finally strikes home with the audience and there’s a tinge of melancholy, if only the mildest and most temporary kind, that sets in. This year is supposed to be particularly interesting in that the popular storyline repeated again and again among the chattering classes has revolved around the Met’s long-time Music Director James Levine, his health problems, his cancellations, and all the projected fantasies about his future with the company and what will come after. It’s a pastime that has spread into the more “legitimate” press with folks like Alex Ross and the New York Times throwing their hats into the chatter ring. It all seems rather silly to me, and I’ll probably have more to say on this tomorrow after seeing the last performance of the company’s new Die Walküre. But on Friday night, it was all about Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos.

Joyce DiDonato Photo: Cory Weaver/Met Opera 2011

There were a mere three performances of this revival, all in the last week and all conducted by Principal Guest Conductor, Fabio Luisi. He’s been the focus of much attention in the Levine health storyline, and several folks have been eager to cast him as the heir apparent, parsing out details of his conducting work here more and more as the seasons go by. And while I’m not sure how much I care about what future job titles he may hold with the Met Opera, I do know two things: you’ve got to love someone who loves pugs, and you’ve got to love someone who knows his way around German opera as well as Luisi does. His Lulu performances at the end of the last season were spectacular and his leadership tonight in Ariadne was first-rate. The playing was sensitive and light but he never backed down from the intensity of the score when it was called for. He isn’t overly indulgent with the singers, and everything seemed perfectly in place musically throughout. He is not a sloppy conductor, but avoids being fussy as well. I for one would happily hear him lead many more works based on what I’ve heard thus far, regardless of whether he's got keys to the executive washroom or not.

Luisi was given a world-class, if somewhat unusual cast. All well-loved vocalists, though admittedly not the ones that might spring to mind in Strauss. Violeta Urmana sang Ariadne with adequate power and good energy. Her voice is a bit darkly hued for the role and she didn’t really have the shimmering effortless upper range you’d want, though she did hit the notes she wanted. Joyce DiDonato meanwhile sang the composer in the prologue. She’s one of the hottest names in opera right now and has a warm approachable personality to boot. Love her as I do, though, this was not my favorite role of hers. Not unlike Urmana, she lacked a certain piercing quality in the most dramatic moments of the score, though I could always hear her above the orchestra. Kathleen Kim was the Zerbinetta. She’s had a banner couple of years here at the Met stealing hearts as Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann and taking names as Madame Mao in Nixon in China. Her Zerbinetta was satisfying with the right balance of savvy and sweet. The men in the cast were a pleasure as well, including Sir Thomas Allen as the Music Master and Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus.

So what's not to love? The production from Elijah Moshinsky for one. It continues to be puzzling. In the prologue there is a fair amount of activity and it’s quite colorful and just off-kilter enough to still be intriguing. The "opera" part of the opera gets off to a good start as well. But the idea mill peters out somewhere around the conclusion of Zerbinetta’s aria when the pro forma commedia dell’arte stuff takes over. The final scene with Ariadne and Bacchus is almost entirely inert with blocking straight out of a soap opera. It’s too bad that the staging gives out just as the music hits its home stretch. But on the whole here was much more to like than dislike.


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