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Sunday, Nov. 19, 2000

Chaotic, comedic 'Ariadne' shows lighter side of Strauss


Wiener Staatsoper Oct. 22, Filippo Sanjust directing, Giuseppe Sinopoli conducting in Kanagawa Kenmin Hall -- "Ariadne auf Naxos" (libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1874-1929; music by Richard Georg Strauss, 1864-1949) featuring Waldemar Kmentt, Peter Weber, Agnes Baltsa, Jon Villars, Geert Smits, Heinz Zednik, Johann Reinprecht, Marcus Pelz, Edita Gruberova, Cheryl Studer, Georg Tichy, Benedikt Kobel, Wolfgang Bankl, Helmut Wildhaber, Simina Ivan, Svetlana Serdar, Anat Efraty and the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera

The Vienna State Opera presented a total of 10 performances of three operas, commencing with Richard Strauss's operatic entertainment, "Ariadne on Naxos." Superb in every aspect, the opera within an opera -- partly classical mythology, partly commedia dell'arte, partly 18th-century Viennese satire -- drew sold-out audiences to the large multipurpose hall fronting the bay in Yokohama.

Ranking among a small handful of the most pre-eminent opera companies of the world, the VSO is the second company to be presented in NBS's prodigious 2000-2002 opera festival. Appearing in Japan for the 15th time, the 131-year-old company arrived with 40 soloists, an orchestra of 94, a chorus of 48, a ballet of 37, 58 technicians, 38 administrators and three conductors, a total of over 300 persons.

We may be impressed beyond measure with the excellence and sumptuousness of the presentations of the Vienna State Opera during its three-week stint in Japan. All this, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. Back home in Vienna, its current repertory comprises 43 different productions (including five operas and two ballets new this year) which it presents in a total of 300 performances annually.

All of this is expensive, of course. The income from all those expensive tickets still doesn't cover the enormous outlays necessitated by high quality and huge quantity. The role of patronage assumed by the nobility in an earlier age has been taken over by the corporate sector. The gorgeously printed 136-page souvenir program contained messages of greeting from a dozen major corporate heads, several of whom philosophized sagely about the role of business as a guardian of the quality of life.

Corporate support has long been a vital factor in helping the arts flourish in America, but it has come to Japan rather slowly and recently. It has not been lost on these prominent businessmen, however, that Seiji Ozawa has been designated to move to the podium of the Vienna State Opera as its first music director of the new millennium. Here, too, things are to change.

This tour bill disdained presenting Japanese aficionados with routine operatic fare. Alongside Gaetano Donizetti's melodrama "Linda of Chamounix" and Franz Lehar's operetta "The Merry Widow" (the latter in an opulent production not to be confused with that of the Volksoper), the Strauss offering rounded out a wide-ranging survey of unsuspected delights of the genre.

Strauss was an accomplished conductor and a brilliant orchestrator. His compositional style was the German romantic idiom, which he enriched with numerous layers of spectacular counterpoint. By 1912, at age 48, he had written almost all of his important symphonic works and five of his 14 operas (including "Salome," "Elektra" and "Der Rosenkavalier"). One can almost hear him turning to his librettist and saying, "Hugo, let's write a farce."

Mozart had juxtaposed vaudeville antics with Masonic tenets to produce one of the greatest operas of musical history, "The Magic Flute." Strauss could not resist trying the same tack. He set "Ariadne auf Naxos" in a bourgeois drawing room in Mozart's Vienna, juxtaposed tragedy with comedy, and threw in every operatic foible he could think of to entertain, not the audience, but the performers in the opera themselves. It is a kind of Marx Brothers opera, and it can be hard to make sense of all that's going on.

A stage is being constructed on the stage during a madcap prologue in which the majordomo informs the company that for the entertainment, a tragic Greek opera (this is within the opera) will be followed by a comic Italian harlequinade. He subsequently amends this to instruct them that the opera and the harlequinade are to be combined and performed simultaneously.

In the opera within the opera, Ariadne, Princess of Crete, has been abandoned on the isle of Naxos and is tragically yearning for death. Cheryl Studer sang the part. It's a wonderful part, and what a soprano! When Studer sang with the three Greek nymphs, Simina Ivan, Svetlana Serdar and Anat Efraty, who unsuccessfully attempt to comfort her, the texture of the four female voices was nothing short of ravishing.

The harlequinade troupe comprises a comic male quartet (Georg Tichy, Benedikt Kobel, Wolfgang Bankl and Helmut Wildhaber) who then attempt to cheer the neurotic demigoddess with dance and song, also to no avail.

They are joined by the coquettish Zerbinetta, Edita Gruberova, who tries, gaily and melodiously, to teach Ariadne about her own earthy philosophy of life and love. The highlight of the spoof is Zerbinetta's long, extended recitative and aria, said to be the most difficult music ever composed for a coloratura. It was unbelievable, formidable, and it brought down the house.

There was so much going on in this entertainment that I couldn't make sense of it at all. Along with virtually everyone else in the audience, I finally had to buy one of those beautiful, expensive programs. Of course I realize that to be able to hear "Ariadne auf Naxos" performed this way again, I probably shall have to travel to Vienna.

One can appreciate why Seiji Ozawa would be willing to forsake his prestigious post as the longest-tenured music director in Boston's illustrious history in order to move to the Vienna State Opera. That's where the action is.

E-mail Robert Ryker at ryker@gol.com

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