Metropolitan Opera 2021-22 Review: Ariadne auf Naxos

Lise Davidsen Shines in Mixed Revival of Strauss Opera

By Francisco Salazar
(Credit: Marty Sohl/Met Opera)

It’s been 11 years since the Metropolitan Opera presented Richard Strauss’ opera within an opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

One of the composer’s intimate works, “Ariadne” features some of Strauss’ most popular music. To pull this work off effectively, it requires four particularly great voices. For this run, the Met Opera put together a starry cast that on paper seemed like a winner.

In reality, the cast proved disappointing.

A Classic Production 

The Met brought back Elijah Moshinsky’s 1993 production which continues to be magical after almost 30 years. The opening prologue is the backstage of a theater that is divided into three sections. One can see the stage of the opera house stage left and the entryway into the house that is owned by the “richest man in Vienna.” Then there are the dressing rooms where the action takes place. It’s all well-distributed and each space is used throughout the scene.

The opera is placed in a theater and when the curtain opens, we see a mystical, blue space and what looks be like a black mountaintop. The stage opens up at various points to give it additional dimension and showcase different backgrounds, including a ship landing and a gorgeous orange background representing beaming light at the close of the opera. There is also a cart that comes in for the comedian’s scene.

One of the great visuals of this production is the three nymphs that enter on stilts and walk across the vast Met stage. It was my first time seeing this production and I was quite mesmerized by this particular image. It’s hard to imagine that many of today’s more “theatrical” productions have yet to accomplish anything as magical as this moment.

The Leader

In the pit, Marek Janowski lead the Met orchestra with forward momentum. Under his baton, the orchestra began with a very subtle and gentle sound that grew in power to match the opera’s ever-expansive lines. He was particularly incredible in the arias with soprano Lise Davidsen as they both seemed to have a great understanding of where they wanted the music to go.

The climactic finale was also full of power and ardor. For a 37-piece orchestra, this was pure magic. One must give props to Bryan Wagorn for his crisp articulation on the piano and for doing such a great job in accompanying many soloists throughout.

Credit: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

The Composer & His Prologue

The prologue is all about the composer and the confusion that ensues when it is announced that the opera he composed will be performed before a comedy act. Outrage breaks out when it is announced that in order for the fireworks to be on time, the opera and the comedy must be shown at the same time.

Isabel Leonard portrayed the composer, her first Strauss role at the Met, and a bit of a preview of next season’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” In this new role, Leonard portrayed the youthfulness of the distracted composer and entered with a fresh and gorgeous tone that she got to expand in her duet with Zerbinetta. Here, the passion took over as the voice gleamed into the auditorium with might. During this scene, she flirted with Brenda Rae’s Zerbinetta and one could see a renewal of hope in Leonard’s Composer.

But as she sang the aria that followed, “Sein wir wieder gut,” which shows an inspired composer, Leonard’s voice seemed to lose some of the luster, especially in her upper register which gained graininess and didn’t bloom as the melody climaxed. She did regain the lyric colors towards the end of the prologue as she stormed out furiously upon realizing that the comedians would destroy her work.

The prologue is made up of recitatives and while Leonard was animated throughout the scene, some of the diction was murky and lost in her lush tone.

As the Music Master, Johannes Martin Kränzle sang with a resonant tone and incredible comic timing. Kränzle was a big contrast to Leonard’s hotheaded Composer, as he kept calm even as he received the news of the many changes.

Wolfgang Brendel was fantastic as the Major-Domo in the short speaking role that saw him come in with outbursts and an authoritarian presence that was incredibly comical. Brendel, who has performed the role before at the Met had a way with the rhythm of the text that at times it felt like he was singing even if it was pure speaking.

Patrick Carfizzi, Thomas Capobianco, Philip Cokorinos, and Brenton Ryan all supported this first scene with solid voices and acting.

The Comedians

Leading the comedian troupe was Brenda Rae in the role of Zerbinetta. The role is well-known for her aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin,” an extended passage that lasts around 13 minutes and is divided into lyrical and coloratura passages. There are dizzying runs and high notes that will almost always land a soprano an extended ovation. While Rae definitely received a great ovation this evening, the aria was quite disappointing.

Rae began the piece with a gorgeous lyric line and a warm middle voice. It resonated with brightness. And she was quite playful throughout the middle section, dancing with her fellow comedians and even singing while she was picked up. But during the “Als ein Gott kam Jeder gegangen,” which one could say is the “cabaletta” portion of this aria, Rae’s precise coloratura runs were contrasted with a messy, grainy trill. The high notes were often cut short and sounded rough and flat, particularly the final high high note. But perhaps the more concerning issue with the aria outside of the technical mishaps that could have been manifested by the incredible physical work required by the staging was the overall lack of cohesiveness of the piece. Many times it seemed like the aria lost steam and had no forward momentum; it ultimately came off as extremely disconnected.

Rae’s other solo moments had more appeal. Her duet in the prologue showed her lyric capabilities through the coquettish phrasing and the ensemble that followed the aria with the comedians showing Rae frolicking about the stage and delivering sensuality in her interactions with Sean Michael Plumb’s Harlekin.

Plumb has an appealing baritone that has a rich warm sound that in a larger role will definitely shine when he returns to the Met. In his short song, “Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen,” his voice displayed roundness and gorgeous legato. The rest of the comedians were portrayed by Ryan Speedo Green and Miles Mykkanen and both made up a great duo that blended well and gave us some humorous moments.

The Tenor & The God

Brandon Jovanovich portrayed Bacchus and the Tenor. His entrance in the prologue was filled with hotheaded energy and he dispatched the text with preciseness and vigor. It was comic to see Jovanovich display the volatile ego of the divo as he threw a wig around and argued with Lise Davidsen’s Prima Donna.

But it was unfortunate that this prologue was his high point. In the Act one opera, Jovanovich’s Bacchus enters at the end for the soaring and extended duet. It is an extremely challenging part but a heroic one at that. His opening lines “Circe! Circe!” were dry in sound; while they projected well into the auditorium, the sound came off as sloppy in intonation and pushed. As he entered the stage, the middle register seemed to warm up and his round sound cleared up. He had some lush legato lines but during the climax of the duet (“Die Höhle da! Lass mich, die Höhle deiner Schmerzen Zieh’ ich zur tiefsten Lust um dich und mich!”), the tenor struggled with the higher tessitura and the high notes were inaudible and pushed. During the repeat of this melody (“Nun reg’ ich die Glieder in göttlicher Lust! Und eher sterben die ewigen Sterne”), which ends the opera, the tenor seemed out of power and he covered his notes. While it was a nice sound, it lacked the heroism of this Strauss part.

Credit: Marty Sohl/Met Opera

The Nymphs

The three Nymphs, Dryade, Echo, and Najade were portrayed by Tamara Mumford, Maureen McKay, and Deanna Breiwick. As mentioned, they were tasked with sing on stilts while moving about the stage. The three masterfully managed the moment physically and vocally, singing gorgeously in unison.

Mumford showed her dusky mezzo while McKay gave a colorful soprano to her role. Finally, Breiwick delivered some dazzling high notes that made me hope that perhaps she’ll be a future Zerbinetta at the house.

The Prima Donna & The Star

This week the opera world was focused on the controversy of one diva that seemed to overlook the triumph and the rise of another whose greatness is growing before our eyes. That star is, of course, Lise Davidsen.

In her third assignment at the Met, the Norwegian soprano showed many facets of her persona. She can be comic, tragic, and romantic. She can be physical and subtle. More importantly, she has one of the few voices in the world that can fill the Met stage with great resonance and gleaming colors.

On this evening Davidsen entered the stage as the temperamental prima donna that looked at Zerbinetta with disdain and had a clear rivalry with the tenor who was to play her love interest. Davidsen’s prima donna wanted to be the center of attention but unlike the tenor who was explosive on stage, she kept her cool as she delivered her recitative text with wit. She simply sat down and imposed herself as the rest of the theater troupe catered to her every whim. It was a mere preview of what was to come in the opera portion of the work.

In her opening lines as Ariadne, “Wo war ich?,” Davidsen sang with a yearning tone that soared with desperation and despair. The monologue where she recalls her love for Theseus was filled with a dark shimmering timbre that emphasized the sadness in the character she was portraying. Each line had an emphasis on the consonant and the legato lines continuously melted in her voice with ease. She also started certain phrases with a quiet piano that easily crescendoed into a forte.

In the following aria “Es gibt ein Reich, wo alles rein ist,” Davidsen displayed restraint at first with a sonorous middle voice and deep chest voice. The aria is demanding as it can be ponderous in many ways and is not always an obvious bravura display, but Davidsen gave it forward momentum and incisiveness with the tempo. You could see how the voice continuously grew with potencey and her high notes sparkled with power. She also displayed flexibility in some of the runs that Strauss composed for the aria. As the piece moved toward its climax, her voice also grew in size and eventually bloomed on “An dich werd’ ich mich ganz verlieren.”

While Davidsen didn’t sing during Zerbinetta’s aria, it was incredibly diverting to see Davidsen break her Ariadne character to return to her Prima Donna persona. It was hard to turn away from her as she made faces of disdain toward Rae’s Zerbinetta. This was the prima donna demanding seriousness in her art and she eventually left the stage when she got tired of the comedian’s antics.

Davidsen returned to the stage for the final duet. There was still some torment at first as she sang her first phrases with sweetness and some of that longing sound. It was all the more evident as she became aware of the mistaken identity of the hero. Still, as she became entranced by the music, so did Davidsen’s voice. The “Gibt es kein Hinüber” was pure passion and ringing tones that gave me goosebumps every time she let her mighty voice loose. The ensuing lines that she sings alongside the Nymphs were filled with great sensitivity and purity and when she was tasked with sing with Jovanovich at the end, the voice simply gleamed.

This was Davidsen’s night and audiences who don’t have tickets yet should go and see the future of the Opera world first hand.


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