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A Splendid Journey through the Ariadne Labyrinth

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
04/29/2011 -  and May 1*, 4, 7, 10, 2011
Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos, opus 60
John Fanning (Music Master), Jon Kolbet (Major Domo), Michael Sumuel (Lackey), James Chamberlain (Officer), Susan Graham (Composer), Alexey Dolgov (Tenor/Bacchus), Samuel Schultz (Wigmaker), Laura Claycomb (Zerbinetta), Christine Goerke (Prima Donna/Ariadne), Rodell Rosel (Dance Master), Kiri Deonarine (Naiad), Catherine Martin (Dryad), Brittany Wheeler (Echo), Boris Dyakov (Harlequin), Robert Gleadow (Truffaldino), Brighella (Brendan Tuohy), Nathaniel Peake (Scaramuccio)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor)
John Cox (director), Robert Perdziola (set and costume designer), Duane Schuler (lighting designer)

K. Deonarine, C. Martin, C. Goerke (© Felix Sanchez)

With a thoroughly enjoyable production of Strauss' genre-bender Ariadne auf Naxos, Houston Grand Opera brings its magnificent 2010-11 season to a close. With a solid cast headed by a dream trifecta of female leads, director John Cox and conductor Patrick Summers seamlessly conquer every intricacy that Strauss and Hofmannsthal throw their way.

The focus in the vocal casting is justifiably on the trio of female leads, and here one is treated to absolute vocal splendor. It is always disheartening that the Composer doesn't return to comment on his "Opera," but this is even more apparent when the role is performed as gloriously as Susan Graham sings it. She dominates the "Prologue," stringing together phrases in all ranges with utmost ease and perfectly portraying the youthful anxiety and conflicted feelings for Zerbinetta. We truly believe it when "Musik ist eine heilige Kunst" is sung by Graham's heilige Stimme.

Laura Claycomb meets every challenge thrown at her by the role of Zerbinetta. One always looks forward to "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," which Claycomb sings with such comfort and musicality that sopranos everywhere must be green with envy, but the role is so much more than that, and this is where Claycomb stands out. She is an excellent, knowing counterpoint to Graham's Composer, both vocally and temperamentally. Strauss gives the two a glorious scene near the end of the "Prologue," and Claycomb mercurially darts in and out of Graham's sustained vocal lines. Zerbinetta catalyzes the Composer's passion, both for this cunning vixen and for music itself, and the duo's dramatic arc in this scene is extraordinary.

Pride of place, however, belongs to Christine Goerke, who portrays the entire spectrum of emotion throughout the opera while never losing sight of her individuality as a performer. Her voice is perfectly suited for Wagner and Strauss heroines, and her transformation from bratty Prima Donna in the "Prologue" to touching, forlorn Ariadne in the "Opera" is spot-on. She has complete control over every dynamic level in every register, singing in the heights with blazing force or ethereal glow and reaching into the depths with strength and consistency. Even when Cox riskily has Ariadne turn her back to the audience and look out to the sea in search of Theseus, the sound comes across clearly. In her demanding scene with Bacchus, she mirrors the impressive arc of Graham's transformation at the end of the "Prologue" and steps further into pure vocal ecstasy.

This trio's excellence sets a high standard for the male singers, and here the casting is very good but less consistent. John Fanning's Music Master is the standout. He sings with clarity and confidence, putting out fires while maintaining a dominant stage presence. Less successful is Rodell Rosel's Dance Master, who acted well but was insecure above the staff. The role of Bacchus seems to lie in a problematic tessitura for most tenors, and one has to go back to a special voice like Jess Thomas to find the perfect fit for the role. Alexey Dolgov impressively meets many of the roles demands, but is simply no match for Goerke in their extended duet. This imbalance is more apparent in light of the perfect match between Graham and Claycomb at the end of the "Prologue", which proceeds in a parallel dramatic situation.

Splendid singing comes from Kiri Deonarine, Catherine Martin and Brittany Wheeler as the trio of nymphs. They produce an enchanting, blended sound and are understated in their frustrated interactions with Zerbinetta and her band of players. Boris Dyakov as Harlequin is outstanding, portraying vocal and physical lust for Zerbinetta with aplomb and making the most out of his small role. Michael Sumuel and Samuel Schultz also sing well, but John Kolbet's German diction doesn't convince, and he was much more convincing recently as Don Basilio.

Robert Perdziola and Duane Schuler have put together a striking visual production, incorporating many tricks of the trade to create a living set that moves and breathes. The caricatured pieces are gorgeously detailed, and there are many unforgettable scenic transitions. The behind-the-scenes exposé of the "Prologue" take place in the realistic bowels of the theater. In cramped spaces, genius is being born and plot threads are being entangled, sets are being constructed and wigs are being sewn. In the background, we see (from behind) the set for the "Opera" taking shape above the hectic drama unfolding in the foreground, where the claustrophobic quarters heighten our empathy with the anxious Composer. This multilayered scheme continues in the opera's second half, with a beautifully rendered "stage" cave that offers the potential for deconstruction and subtle lighting changes that let us know, as Bacchus "transforms" Ariadne, that this cave isn't just a cave.

Patrick Summers navigates the labyrinthine score expertly. The orchestra seems to take a few moments to fit comfortably into the score, but their confidence grows and returns to the glorious sounds one expects.

Houston Grand Opera should be applauded for such a consistently high quality season that presented a wonderful variety of opera. One looks forward anxiously as general director Anthony Freud leaves for Chicago and hopes that whoever replaces him can continue the steady climb that Freud managed in his short tenure.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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