When Zerbinetta (coloratura soprano Audrey Elizabeth Luna), the lead prankster in a disruptive comedy troupe, appears in shorts and a halter top that evoked Mary Martin as Nellie Forbush in the original cast of South Pacific and prances up to Ariadne, (soprano Emalie Savoy), a noble prima donna sitting on a beach bench dressed in a formal, black gown, pouting about her loser of a lover, the god Theseus, it was evident that this wasn’t going to be your everyday staging of Richard Strauss’s 1912 opera, Adriane auf Naxos. August 4, 2010, saw the advent of new masterpiece of serious fun.
Zerbinetta and her irrepressible male cohorts, Brighella (tenor Lawrence Jones), Scaramuccio (tenor Martin Bakari), Truffaldin (bass David Salsbery Fry), and Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore) wearing around their waists iridescent children’s pool-floats with silly animals in front, sang and mimed lessons from the book, “Freud für Frauleins.” They did this along with a regular Radio City Music Hall production of song and dance, acrobatics, jokes, and stagey sympathy, to coax Ariadne from her depression.
This didn’t work, of course. (Note from this doctor: It never does, yet everyone keeps trying.) In the end, however, the god Bacchus stepped off his yacht, sang some fabulous solos, duos, and trios, completed a quick costume change to resplendent golden robes and diadems, and spirited his similarly be-gowned Ariadne off to eternal bliss. This preposterous storyline gave Strauss and the present company’s gifted director, Ira Siff, plenty to work with. Sustaining the aesthetic momentum of Strauss’s preceding masterpiece, Der Rosenkavalier, into a phenomenal confabulation of spectacular singing, conducting, orchestral performance, zany beachwear and youthful hi-jinks, this production was balm for the soul, Prozac for the perplexed, and cause for optimism about the future of classical music. It was a delight in every way.
Preceded in the Prologue (as the Act I set-up to this play-within-a-play is called) by The Major-Domo (spoken by Hans Pieter Herman), The Dancing Master (tenor Patrick Jang), a Lackey (baritone Shea Owens), an Officer (baritone Javier Bernardo), and The Composer (a trouser role by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall), these young singers came across as tomorrow’s stars in the making. Also appearing with individual and collective brilliance in the Performance (as the Act II is called), were the three visually and vocally stunning sea-nymphs, Najade (soprano Deanna Breiwick), Dryade (mezzo-soprano Kristin Hoff), and Echo (soprano Emily Duncan-Brown), Bacchus/The Tenor (Ta’u Pupu’a), and The Music Master/Harlequin (baritone Elliot Madore).
A chamber orchestra squeezed into the pit of the ancient Tanglewood Theater. Augmented by piano and harmonium into an emulation of the larger instrumental ensemble prescribed by Strauss, this small instrumental force was credibly — indeed magically — magnified into a proper orchestra by conductor Keitaro Harada through perfect timing, dramatic dynamics, and unerring coordination of the musical stagecraft. Not a second was out of synch. Everything had that ineffable snap. There was never a dull moment!
This could not have been easy for this superb young conductor, for the plot is absurdly complex, and his predecessor conductor, substituting for the recovering James Levine, was the redoubtable senior statesman, Cristoph Von Dohnianyi. (Imagine, if you will, who, under these circumstances, gets the lion’s share of the rehearsal time. Take it from your reviewer, this was the case here, with just 15 minutes for Mr. Harada, who fortunately knew the score cold and enjoyed the total trust of the musicians and singers, his fellow Tanglewood fellows.)
As well, the set of the Act I Prologue – “backstage at the private theater in the house of the richest man in Vienna” — differs greatly from that of the Act II Performance, taking place not in his theater but in the patron’s enormous, fancy living-room, and the cast counts a large number of singers located high, low, left, and right across the stage, who, walk, run, jump, and even fall as they sing. Harada was welcomed to the podium with a clatter of stamping feet from the orchestra, who played their hearts out for him and cheered him again at the end.
Among the stand-out performances were The Composer, a casually-dressed, middle-class man played by soprano Cecelia Hall in high dudgeon because the owner has told his Major-Domo, at the last possible minute, to compress into a single performance both the serious, commissioned work about a high-born singer marooned on a desert island, and a slap-stick comedy by a troupe of low-lifes. Blessed with a huge mezzo instrument and a fabulous repertory of foot stamps, eye rolls, shoulder shrugs, and resigned slumps, Hall gave her all to soaring legato lines, wide intervals, and splendid embellishments. Across its range, Hall’s voice has a caramel consistency, as delightful to listen to as her colorful acting was to watch. When the Dancing Master, the Mr. Fix-It of the piece, suggested that she (he) “cut out the dull parts of Ariadne,” and “give him the pencil,” she sang “I’d rather burn it!” with poetic force sufficient to alert the motherboard of the house sprinkler system that serious trouble was coming.
Surely the most serious role was that of Ariadne, a prima donna outraged by the circumstances in which she is compelled to perform. Emalie Savoy brought an even, deeply resonant, warm voice to a complicated acting challenge that included her going ballistic, falling to the floor in mid-song as she responded to the Major-Domo’s announcement of what “the patron commands” and, in the main drama of the Performance, having to sit distractedly as the comedians pulled out their various entreaties to rouse her from her miserable funk.
Hall convincingly maintained her indignity through the show, finally relenting when one of the men proffered a handkerchief to dab her tears (grabbing it like a two-year-old in “no” mode) and, only in the end, succumbing to the godly power of Bacchus before deciding that, yes, she’d sail off into the sunset with a guy in whose veins ran “balsam and ether” rather than wait for a red-blooded human. Ariadne’s long, dramatic aria, bemoaning her loss of Theseus, who “walked in light and rejoiced in life,” soared to high A’s and piercing Bb’s over luscious chromaticisms and gorgeous French horn lines, melting into a lovely, more diatonic waltz redolent of Der Rosenkavalier and spiced with marvelous Eb to B major romantic harmonies. Ms. Savoy was formal and romantic at once, a wounded woman of passion, justly skeptical of any man’s love, only belatedly allowing herself to be swept off her feet by a god.
To Zerbinetta (Audrey Elizabeth Luna), however, fell the most challenging role. She distinguished herself equally with vocal virtuosity, physicality, and comic acting. In the Prologue, she was the prototypical girl “who cain’t say no,” oozing impulsive sexuality, emotional volatility, and desperate availability as she flirted with Officer and her trampy colleagues alike. In the Performance, she mused about the endless variety of male embraces and seductions.
Finding Freud, she discovered in paperback psychiatry a short list of useless aphorisms. In a dazzling, long aria, during which she tossed these half-truths at Ariadne, motionless on her bench, she surveyed the entire soprano range with trills in the stratosphere, delicate ornaments woven through arpeggiate lines, nailing difficult intervals, and bringing off two –—two ! — astounding vocal and acrobatic feats.
Soaring to a high Eb while urging Ariadne to stop her crying, she descended to high C, and then, as she ended the phrase, suddenly plopped to the floor and gave us a resounding low F. Carrying her book, “Freud für Frauleins,” to Ariadne, Zerbinetta’s mood changed to caring and concern, and she asked touchingly, “Yet aren’t we both women with hearts beating in our breasts, beyond understanding?” The two flutes descended sympathetically.
Even as Ariadne sat, mute and expressionless, Zerbinetta sang on, with deepening emotion about how she “never learned to curse men, unfaithful as they are.” Such “monsters, with no scruples!” As she asked, ”are we immune to their kisses?” she rocked Adriadne in her arms. In a passionate, rising arpeggio, she sang “I’m still faithful, ‘though I stray!” She added with emphasis: “I finally deceive him!”
In response to this proclamation of feminine empowerment, Ariadne, at long last, became animated. Indeed, she stood up, ascended the stairs to the door balcony behind them, and walked out! Not exactly your modern woman, either circa 1912 or 2010!
Zerbinetta, notwithstanding, continued her aria with increasing intensity and virtuosity: To the verse, “It’s amazing how your heart can be such a mystery,” her melody ascended to a high Eb before a florid cadenza scaled down and up to high Eb again, and then upward in a still more brilliant Bb arpeggio to high F, and then downward in an F arpeggio as she fell, incredibly, flat on her back.
From this impossible posture, her star coloratura turn continued for what must have been minutes, perfectly sounding wooly trills, lambent appoggiaturas, up-and-down arpeggios, all kinds of embellishments and odd intervals over multiple orchestral polytonalities and innumerous intersecting inner lines. This was a spectacular tour de force. If you hadn’t been there, you’d not have believed it! (Note to gentle reader: Click to the Metropolitan Opera box office to catch her debut as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute during the coming season. While you’re at it, get a couple for Cecelia Hall’s debut as the Second Priestess in Gluck’s Iphigenie en Tauride.)
Ta’u Pupu’a, in the Bacchus/The Tenor role, brought a commanding physical presence and fervent, silken, superbly focused voice to his emotional solo and duo arias with Ariadne. The former may have had something to do with his first choice of career, during which he sustained an injury. Faute de mieux! Forced to return to opera from the National Football League, to which he was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and also played for the Baltimore Ravens, he studied and performed with Kiri Te Kanawa at the Solti/Te Kanawa Bel Canto Academy in Italy. When Pupu’a sang of love’s bringing “balm to the body and slumber to the soul,” he was persuasive indeed, but when he told Ariadne of his fleeing the clutches of the enchantress Circe, “Your magic bonds barely touched me! Do not burden my fragile heart with your dark enchantment,” she seemed pretty convinced that this god was a good catch.
Elliot Madore, the baritone whose amorous antics as The Music Master/Harlequin won Zerbinetta’s heart, was the most tender of comedians, strumming a neon blue ukulele as he approached her bench. Sitting at a respectful distance from Ariadne, he sang of love and hope. But “Bali Ha’i” this was not. Rather, he sympathized honestly: “Love, hate, hope, fear drive pain through the heart. All these again are yours!” With a gracious gesture, he offered her his handkerchief. Madore’s voice could not have been more apposite to this role: warm, embracing, brimming with articulate nuance.
There were no weak links in the chain that connected this stunning evening of human theater to the muses above and the poetic imaginations of Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Watch for all these singers, players, and conductor in the years ahead. The future of opera is in capable hands.