Review: ‘Ariadne,’ the Most Operatic Opera, Bows in Cleveland | Modern Society of USA

Review: ‘Ariadne,’ the Most Operatic Opera, Bows in Cleveland

Review: ‘Ariadne,’ the Most Operatic Opera, Bows in Cleveland

CLEVELAND — Is Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” the best opera? Probably not, though it’s up there. If you asked me whether it was my favorite opera, my answer would be the same.

But it must be the most operatic opera, the one that reflects most sweetly and profoundly on the nature of this strange, lovely hodgepodge of an art form. Putting on an opera, after all, is what the piece is all about.

So it makes sense that the Cleveland Orchestra’s audience at Severance Hall here — for a pristine, poignant production of “Ariadne” that runs through Saturday evening — takes its seats to find what looks like a rehearsal.

The players, wearing their own street clothes, are onstage, with a plastic work table and some chairs. A digital clock, the kind that keeps precise time for obeying musicians’ union regulations, is visible. The orchestra’s music director, Franz Welser-Möst, sits on the podium, chatting with the wind section.

A stage manager comes out and holds up a hand to indicate five minutes to go; Mr. Welser-Möst stands; and, without anyone having applauded or the lights having gone down, the orchestra surges into the lithe rapids of the opening measures.

Staged by Frederic Wake-Walker, it’s a disarming, intimate beginning to this most disarming and intimate of scores. And there is no orchestra I’d rather hear play it than this one, pared to a vivid, graceful chamber scale. Even at full complement, Cleveland is a group that performs with the crystalline energy of a quartet, silky yet piquant, so you can imagine the pearly lucidity when it’s reduced to just three dozen.

In those first couple of minutes alone, the bassoon peeks through the strings, a gentle forest murmur. An onstage horn manages to deliver the delicacy and courtly distance you’d expect from an instrument located well into the wings. Strauss’s burbling kaleidoscope of themes unfolds with playfulness and sobriety, in perfect balance.

That balance defines “Ariadne.” Originally conceived as the second half of an evening that would begin with a Molière play, it was revised in the form of a prologue and an opera proper.

The prologue is set in the home of a rich man who, planning for a party, has asked a troupe of comedians to clown and commissioned an earnest young composer to write a serious opera on the mythical theme of Ariadne, abandoned on the island of Naxos.

Then the order comes down: Because of time constraints — there’s a fireworks display to be had — comedians and tragedians are to perform simultaneously. The opera proper is the occasion for their collision and, by the end, sublime cohesion.

It is a piece, just as opera is a genre, about polarities brought into vibrating equilibrium by being made to inhabit the same space: speech and singing; comedy and tragedy; antiquity and modernity; restraint and excess; illusions of purity, set against the complexity, the compromise, of life.

No other work so well captures how opera, at its best, is both of the world and a rapturous heightening of it. Time and again, Strauss almost offhandedly swirls his orchestra into another sphere. And with its peerless elegance, Cleveland is perhaps uniquely suited to capture these magical pivots — to conjure out of this small orchestra, busy punctuating clatter and babble, a sudden, shockingly full rush of feeling that tingles your skin.

Mr. Welser-Möst’s gift for letting scores breathe, unrushed and unruffled yet taut, serves “Ariadne” particularly well. The vitality of instrumental details enhances, rather than distracts from, the coherence of the drama. Moments like the briefest impression of violins tuning in the prologue, and the quiver of flute in the opera proper at the mention of leaves rustling, don’t ever stop the dialogue in its tracks; indeed, they propel it forward.

Cleveland’s eloquent cast propels it, too. This is a talky opera; it can sag or sparkle. Mr. Welser-Möst and the orchestra have assembled artists who make their singing speak.

And even make their speaking sing: The great baritone Wolfgang Brendel is a luxury in the talking role of the Major-Domo in the prologue. (See if you ever hear the consonants of the word “danach” pronounced with more relish.) There’s articulate boldness in other of the smaller roles, like the Music Master (the bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann) and Dance Master (the tenor Jonas Hacker).

Mr. Welser-Möst seems to favor voices more willowy than plummy; his singers tend to blend with the instruments — beautifully — rather than soar over them. Kate Lindsey is direct and assertive as the Composer, her tone sometimes slender and chalky but with moonlit gentleness when it’s soft — an oboe-like quality that lends itself to moments in the prologue when the winds melt into the strings, an autumn sunset in sound.

Her coloratura satiny and clean, Daniela Fally is a calmly sunny, blessedly unperky Zerbinetta, smiling through her seen-it-all-ness. In the title role, Tamara Wilson also exudes serenity and sweetness, even approachability; there’s rarely this much temperamental similarity between Ariadne and Zerbinetta.

Even if it doesn’t really bloom at its top, Ms. Wilson’s soprano easily swells to fill climaxes. And it rests cozily within the ensemble textures, a clarinet rather than a trumpet. Trumpet-like is more the province of Andreas Schager, who as a properly exuberant Bacchus conquers the intense challenges Strauss laid out for his tenors. Mr. Schager manages to sing a role many squeal, blazing out the score’s unfriendly high notes. (It’s a triumph that can sometimes jar in the context of his more restrained colleagues.)

After the bustling prologue and an intermission, the orchestra (in concert black) returns, now lowered into the pit, the stage surrounded by a gauzy white curtain. Throughout the spectacle of Ariadne’s suffering — and the interjections of the comedians who try to cheer her — fragments of old films (Chaplin, Marx Brothers, early cartoons) are projected, floating alongside snippets of footage of the stunning Severance Hall and its architectural details.

It’s nostalgia, and at the same time it’s where we are now. It’s winking, yet sincere. It is, as the work’s librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, wrote of “Ariadne,” “a very serious trifle.” Like opera.

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