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Monodrama, Masque and Madness

New York
Abrons Art Center, 466 Grand Street
05/07/2008 -  and May 8-11
Ariadne Unhinged (World premiere), with music by Monteverdi, Haydn and Schoenberg
Emily Langford Johnson (Ariadne-May 7, 9, 10), Brenda Patterson (Ariadne-May 8, 10 matinee, 11), Armitage Gone! Dance Dancers: Matthew Brantham, Frances Chiaverini, Megum Eda, William Issac, Ryan Kelly, Mei-Hua Wang
Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra: Christopher Collins Lee (Violin and viola) Andrey Tchekmazov (Cello), Sato Moughalan (Flute and piccolo), Benjamin Fingland (Clarinet and Bass clarinet), William Hobbs (Piano), Daniel Swenberg (Theorbo), Neal Goren (Conductor)
Karole Armitage (Director and Choreographer), Veera Lutter (Scenic Designer), Peter Speliopoulos (Costume Designer), Clifton Taylor (Lighting Designer)
Created by Gotham Chamber Opera – Artistic Directors: Neal Goren and Karole Armitage

Perhaps only the Gotham Chamber Opera would have the audacity to roam through the mind of Ariadne, who had been abandoned by her lover on the , the isolated Aegean island After 3,000 years, when neither Homer nor Bullfinch cared very much what she did with her time, some of New York’s more spectacular talents have put together music, ballet and a strange shining setting to conceive a picture of Ariadne’s mind.

Abandoning more conservative fare last night, this writer was attracted by venue, on this ancient immigrant section of New York, by the title, Ariadne Unhinged, by the mélange of composers and of course by choreographer Karole Armitage. I had been told about her choreography by the otherwise serious historian Stella Dong. She had recommended Passing Strange on Broadway. The movements, counterpoint and split-second theatrics of that rock musical were so sharp that when Ms. Armitage’s name appeared in the credits, it was time to visit ancient Grand Street and its old but very usable theater.

While called an opera, the work defies definition. Certainly it can be labeled a monodrama, since only one person sings—for over an hour. Yet we are not interested so much in Ariadne as her mind, for the characters in her mind come alive on stage to torment her. In that sense, Ariadne Unmasked is resembles a grotesque Elizabethan masque. Yet a masque had original music, and this….this composition had music from other sources. In that sense, the piece is a pasticcio, like Handel’s Jupiter in Argos presented last week by Collegiate Chorale.

But most pastiche operas have music by a single composer, or, like Beggar’s Opera, music of the same period. Here, Neal Goren took music from three different centuries of music, with Monteverdi, Haydn and Schoenberg. The results were most surprising.

Perhaps we should simply call it a “concept”, the antithesis of Strauss’s bubbly opera Ariadne auf Naxos. It starts with Ariadne alone on the stage, singing Monteverdi familiar Lamento d’Arianna. But she is not alone at all. The images summoned up by her mania begin to make their appearance around the strange background. They are sexless, androgynous, with skin-tight clothing. These spirits—peris? astral bodies? gnomes? Sylphs?—sometimes torment Ariadne with strange objects. More frequently they dance with her with figures close to classical ballet, but even closer to the naiads of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. One scene is of near copulation, another (with the single sex figure, of Dyonisus) is warded off her. But she still keeps singing.

Singing and dancing and playing harshly with these creatures of her manic imagination until the return of Monteverdi, and an uncomfortable of being alone, always alone on Naxos.

Emily Langford Johnson danced her way through the work when necessary, Sometimes reflecting the others, sometimes painfully against them. But simultaneously she had to sing, and her mezzo-soprano voice was not only full and rich, but—most important—dramatic no matter what the music. And that type of music was the core of the concept.

In theory, these musics of the Late Renaissance, Baroque and Expressionist should never have worked. Yet they did work in a most startling way. Monteverdi was used at beginning and ending reprise and one lament in the middle. Most of the agony was quite rightly placed in various out-of-chronology poems from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire. At another point, the music changes entirely to Haydn’s rare concert piece with piano, Arianna a Naxos.

Was the music supposed to send sudden fluctuations or startle the audience? That was not the result. The wonder came that the styles blended in so well together. And yes, they were to portray hysteria, but by switching from the classic to the expressionistic, one didn’t feel the break so much as a fluidity of expression.

Perhaps in the concert hall, applause for one work creates a wall so that the next piece is completely different. Here, the sounds of theorbo, grand piano, and the multifarious sounds of the Schoenberg played into one another.

Not that those who abominate Schoenberg are going to get a thrill out of Ariadne Unhinged. But so much style has gone into the aluminum-style sets—sometimes reflective, sometimes transparent—so much expertise is in the dancing, and such a maximum of emotion comes out of the subtle changes of lighting, that this operatic concept has become a vital, original, and most of all, disturbing study of solitude and hysteria.

CODA: Ariadne Unhinged is on at 8pm through May 11th, with a 2pm matinee on May 10. For tickets, phone 212 279-4200. Subways to Grand Street and Delancey Street are near enough, with a 15-minute walk east to the theatre.

Harry Rolnick



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