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OPERA REVIEW : The Met Adds to Saga of 'Ariadne'


NEW YORK — It hasn't been a very good season for "Ariadne auf Naxos."

First the Music Center Opera of Los Angeles pieced together a version that subjected Richard Strauss' fragile tragicomedy to anachronistic updating and mediocre music-making. Now the mighty Metropolitan has mustered a lavish but strange new "Ariadne"--the company's second production of an opera that received its premiere 75 years ago--and, again, well enough is not left alone.

The staging at Lincoln Center has been entrusted to a controversial modernist, Elijah Moshinsky. Thursday night he confounded his conservative critics--New York critics, both amateur and professional, are notoriously conservative--with an ultra-realistic and fastidiously detailed (also distractingly overpopulated) representation of the prologue. Here, he paid welcome respect to the tone and the period so carefully delineated by Strauss and his inspired librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal.

Then in the opera proper, which should juxtapose the stagy pathos of Greek mythology with the flippant charm of commedia dell'arte, Moshinsky abandoned interpretive fidelity in favor of surrealist fantasy. The shift of stylistic gears came as something of a jolt.

This "Ariadne," imaginatively designed by Michael Yeargan and subtly illuminated by Gil Wechsler, engaged the eye even when it took liberties with logic. In addition to the usual quartet of buffoons, Zerbinetta brought along a whole circus, plus a hyperactive mime borrowed from "Les Enfants du Paradis." The three nymphs rolled serenely above the stage on huge motorized skirts--tie-dyed hoops--that must have been at least 15 feet tall. Ariadne inhabited a mock-cave apparently copied from some slick 1920s poster. The successive dynamic changes were punctuated by the constant opening and closing of backdrop panels, each vista focusing a different illustrative idea.

It was all very pretty, very clever, very fussy. In any case, the opera seria hardly suggested what the creators intended: a performance improvised in a mansion owned by the richest man in 18th-Century Vienna.

The theatrical innovations might have seemed less intrusive if the musical perspective had been comparably assertive. No such luck.

For some reason, the Met's nearly ubiquitous artistic-director, James Levine, chose to sit out this challenge (which is all right), and to pass the baton to Ion Marin (which, it turned out, isn't). Hardly an international authority, Marin conducted this delicate, transparent, multifaceted score as if he were stirring a big, gooey, lumpy broth. He favored broad tempos, thick textures and rough accents. In the noisy process, he left a generally well-chosen cast pretty much to its own disparate devices.

The cast should have been dominated by Jessye Norman in the title role. Handsomely statuesque, she struck her prima-donna poses with ever-artful conviction. Unfortunately, she sounded like a prima donna in desperate trouble.

She attacked virtually every ascending phrase from below, nearly cracked on the high climaxes and flirted with disaster at the hint of a register break. One wanted to think that she was indisposed.

Ruth Ann Swenson provided considerable compensation as a remarkably gutsy, never cloying Zerbinetta. Womanly rather than girlish, she managed to steer the perilous, altitudinous course of her marathon aria with verve, even with lusty aplomb, and she sustained a greater degree of accuracy than any realist in this imperfect world has a right to expect.

Thomas Moser--a product of UC Santa Barbara and now a star at the Vienna Staatsoper--made an auspicious Met debut as Bacchus. Unlike many a hysterical Heldentenor, he met the discomforting heroics and cruel tessitura with bel-canto grace, wherever possible.

In the prologue, Susanne Mentzer played the young Composer with intense, wide-eyed idealism nicely counterbalanced by a poignant air of vulnerability. Although she sang the impassioned music as suavely as her mezzo -soprano would allow, she could not make the listener forget that Strauss wrote the part for a soprano. It really demands a Lehmann, a Seefried, a Jurinac, a Soderstrom, a Stratas. . . .

Mark Oswald phrased Harlekin's serenade lyrically and with sweet-toned reticence. Like many of his colleagues in this ensemble of foreigners, however, he ought to brush up his German. Robert Brubaker, Paul Groves and Ara Berberian completed the agile if not very mellifluous clown-quartet. By contrast, the trio of fearless floating nymphs--Joyce Guyer, Jane Bunnell and Korliss Uecker--sounded mellifluous indeed.

Ragnar Ulfung was allowed (encouraged?) to caricature the hauteur of the Major-Domo. Thomas Stewart, a veteran of many Germanic wars, brought mellow wisdom and an understandably rusty baritone to the platitudes of the Music Master.

The final curtain calls drew cheers for the conductor and singers, some boos for the director and designer. Operatic business as usual in Fun City.

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