A new production is always a feather in a diva’s cap, even when it’s a lemon. What luck, though, when she can headline a hand-me-down that fits her like a glove. Such was the case last spring for the Metropolitan Opera’s new jewel in the crown, Lise Davidsen of Norway, ablaze as the heroine of Ariadne auf Naxos. The company introduced Elijah Moshinky’s opulent yet lucid staging three decades ago with Jessye Norman front and center. True, Michael Yeargan’s ravishing neo-Baroque stage pictures were starting to look shopworn in recent revivals, but not this time. Have they been spruced up in Davidsen’s honor? Relit? Is it a trick of the HD cameras? On the live video, the canvas glistens in every detail. Check out the three nymphs gliding around the floor in rainbow-hued dresses three times taller than they are.
To many fans, Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos) stands as the most felicitous of all Richard Strauss’s collaborations with his preferred librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The premise: at the behest of a rich bozo, a serious new opera and the farcical shenanigans of a song-and-dance troupe are thrown onstage at the same time. And lo!, the planets align.
Davidsen is Ariadne, the Cretan princess who saves Theseus from the Minotaur’s labyrinth, takes to the sea with him, and is abandoned on the desert isle of Naxos. There, in a lush post-Wagnerian vein, she awaits liberation by the god of death, only to be swept away by young Bacchus instead. As an actor, Davidsen strikes no attitudes. In lament and rapture, her gestures are of the simplest. The composure of her face mirrors emotion that is true and deep, at one with the lustrous flood of sound she pours forth with such ecstatic ease. In a world of dramatic sopranos who aren’t, Davidsen is the real thing.
Not that Strauss and Hofmannsthal meant Ariadne to carry the evening alone. Indeed, they’ve laid on an epic battle of the divas. The challenger would be the scintillating Zerbinetta, a coquette with beaux to burn who parries Ariadne’s lofty rhetoric with worldly wisdom dispensed in tunes you can tap your toes to. Brenda Rae, an American who has built a major career in Europe, nails the part’s stratospheric coloratura, but beneath the fixed smile, she’s a tough cookie, pushing all the wrong buttons. We’re meant to love Zerbinetta, and this time we don’t.
In the Prologue, as Davidsen darts in and out as an unnerved Prima Donna, you’ll be focusing chiefly on Isobel Leonard’s electric portrait of the manic-depressive young Composer whose first opera is due to begin within moments. At evening’s end, Brandon Jovanovich more than holds his own as Bacchus, a part all too many tenors strangle on. Start to finish, Marek Janowski conducts like the old master he is, ever attentive to nuance yet never losing the through line. Onstage, the large supporting cast delivers no end of dramatic detail, at times perhaps to a fault.
Ariadne auf Naxos is available for streaming on the Met on Demand Web site
Matthew Gurewitsch writes about opera and classical music for AIR MAIL. He lives in Hawaii