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Opera on DVD: 'Ariadne' at the Met

available at Amazon
R. Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos, D. Voigt, N. Dessay, Metropolitan Opera, J. Levine

(released on September 28, 2010)
Virgin 6418679 5 | 2h14
No matter that Ariadne auf Naxos may be the oddest work to come forth from the partnership of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. For one thing, its libretto is one of the works in which composer and librettist deconstruct the nature of the operatic genre, as a result of serious revision of the originally planned idea. The score is delightful, as long as there is the right combination of singers, conductor, and orchestra -- even when everything is not quite right, as can be attested in performances of varying levels of success, reviewed at Washington National Opera (2009), Wolf Trap (2008), and Covent Garden (2008). This DVD version from the Metropolitan Opera is certainly one to own: it was filmed in 2003 but was released only last year, due (at least by rumor) to some unresolved legal issues. Whatever the reason, opera lovers should rejoice that it was finally made available, as part of the 40th anniversary set for James Levine.

Levine, whose recent health troubles have been felt keenly in many places, was in top form at the podium, leading a well-etched performance from the Met Orchestra, where he may not remain for much longer, according to recent news. The Big House in New York assembled what can only be called a casting d'enfer. This production represented Natalie Dessay's first performances after surgery to repair vocal nodes, and she is dramatically and vocally a near-perfect Zerbinetta, not least for a stunning Großmächtige Prinzessin!. In the title role, there is Deborah Voigt before her bariatric surgery, in buttery voice and giving a hilarious diva send-up, with Canadian tenor Richard Margison not quite her match vocally as the Tenor/Bacchus. (A London performance of this role involved the infamous black dress that Voigt could not fit into, but given a choice between this Voigt and a lesser but trimmer singer, Voigt would get my vote every time -- just avoid the close-ups, which is not how opera is meant to be viewed anyway.) Susanne Mentzer is intense and edgy as Der Komponist, with the highest notes on the boundary of total control, in an exciting way. There are pleasing supporting performances from Wolfgang Brendel's Music Master and Tony Stevenson as a bright-toned, slightly fey Dancing Master, and Nathan Gunn is a flirtatious Harlekin, if not exactly a voice that sounds like a natural Straussian.

The staging, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, is pretty, if a little odd at points, not least because of the crowds of distracting supernumeraries, who disturb the action in ways made worse by the camera focusing on them so much. The first act takes place in a crowded and complicated basement room where preparations are happening, but the second act, for the performance of the mash-up of serious German opera and Italian buffo farce, is much grander. Michael Yeargan's sets and costumes are colorful and bright, with multicolored diamond patterns for Harlekin and Zerbinetta. It was an especially odd choice to have the three naiads roll around on tall platforms that look like mountainous, sunset-vista dresses they are wearing: the staging may account for some of the less than unified ensemble among the trio. Most importantly, none of the nonsense, allowing the comic part of the opera to sparkle, prevents the viewer from taking the operatic part seriously as Strauss seems to have intended. The sound is generally good, although the microphone placement leaves something to be desired: at one point when Dessay turns around while singing, her part is lost almost completely.

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