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Richard Strauss and His “Pretty Hybrid”

Photo by Robert Millard

Even the most ardent detractors of the operatic outpourings of Richard Strauss, in whose numbers I unhesitatingly inscribe my signature, usually come up with a kind word or two for Ariadne auf Naxos. Among its decided virtues are its brevity, both actual and virtual — until, that is, its final half-hour, which tends to drag on for several days. Its orchestration, for a band of a mere 37, is elegant and shot through with bright lights. Many of its attempts at humor end up genuinely funny — as contrasted with that lead balloon of a self-proclaimed “comic opera,” The Silent Woman, visited upon us in Long Beach earlier this summer. It may be that both Strauss and his collaborator on Ariadne, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, were a trifle moonstruck in their oft-repeated delusion that they had created in this “pretty hybrid” a Mozart reborn. On its own ground, however, Ariadne is worth a revival now and then, if only so that it can allow the genius-ridden production it has currently been granted at the Music Center.

William Friedkin is the director, producing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion the ultimate testimonial to the rightness of a collaboration between an insightful film creator and the operatic stage. That marriage, in the 19 years of the Los Angeles Opera, has been fitful and flawed, marked by disaster as well as triumph: the lurid self-indulgence of the Bruce Beresford Rigoletto versus Herbert Ross’ imaginative opening-up of La Bohème. Maximilian Schell’s arrival on the scene via his 2001 Lohengrin also ranks as a major event, with more to come.

Like Beresford, Friedkin has resettled part of his Ariadne in the gold-plated Hollywood Hills, on an undulating and happily multicolored set that Frank Gehry wouldn’t disown (designed, in fact, by Gehry associate Edwin Chan); this time, however, the translation is entirely appropriate, and it is underlined by marvelous details in Sam Fleming’s costume designs and Friedkin’s insights.

The breadth of character is everywhere apparent in Friedkin’s plan of action. Two seasons ago, his Gianni Schicchi was a particular wonder for the way his movement spilled into every corner of the performing space. Here it happens again, animating every square inch of stage, as it would the screen, with small details: Lioba Braun as the frazzled Composer in the Prologue, tearing his/her glasses on and off to emphasize a nervous point; Georg-Martin Bode’s fussbudget of a Major Domo, balancing a toy poodle and a martini. Puppeteer Michael Curry has come up with glorious inventions to fill the air above Ariadne’s desert island with leaping marine beasties and other gadgetry, but I admire even more the way Friedkin has created a gathering of human-size, diverse puppets to embody the mythic, larger-than-life conflicts that unsettle, mostly to splendid effect, this one-of-a-kind opera. He has created a stronger, more convincing retelling of the work than any in my experience: a Prologue more than merely clownish, focused intensely on the self-willed heartbreak of the composer forced to corrupt the “purity” of his masterpiece to accord with market realities; the ensuing “Opera Seria” with its heroine obliged to countenance the absurdity of her situation.

Friedkin’s generally excellent cast, under the warm-hearted pacing of Kent Nagano’s leadership, is of considerable help in this. I don’t want to rekindle the recent Matter of the Dress at London’s Royal Opera, in which a reigning Ariadne was dumped in favor of one less generously proportioned, but there has, in fact, been a tradition to cast the role for size, and it has made for a handy comic prop. (Ealynn Voss last sang it here.) Petra-Maria Schnitzer, possessed of no such prop, lends therefore another dimension to the role and, I must say, another level of interest. In her big aria she is more touching than tragic and, therefore, rather less absurd than some of the weightier avatars of the role; by the same token, you cannot but wish her a better fate than a future being yammered at by the high-voltage tenor of Peter Seiffert’s Bacchus, who comes to rescue her for page after page after page of Straussissimo at the end.

The comedians make a smooth unit; you’d think they’d been at it for years: Hugh Russell, Ian Thompson, James Creswell and Peter Nathan Foltz as the commedia dell’arte gang, Joseph Frank as the airborne Dancing Master. Lyubov Petrova’s Zerbinetta dances cutely and comes valiantly close to the high Fs in her impossible aria, but if you’re of my persuasion, you’ll also want to return to hear Laura Claycomb in the last two performances (September 29, October 2).

 

Back in the olden days, when even watching TV ads promised occasional pleasure, the name of R.O. Blechman summoned images of, among others, marvelously amusing Alka-Seltzer commercials. Those days are gone, but Blechman abides, and on a Koch-Lorber DVD there is his utterly charming retelling of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The performance is by Gerard Schwarz and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, produced by PBS in 1980 for its Great Performances series, with Max von Sydow among the actors and André Gregory as narrator. The sequence of events has been moved around somewhat from Stravinsky’s original, to no harm; what matters is the delight of Blechman’s jittery drawings, which capture the folksy essence of Stravinsky’s score — and of the C.F. Ramuz folktale that lies at its core — as well as any interpretation I have seen or could imagine. As a bonus there is an archive of Blechman drawings, every wavery line an absolute captivation.

At San Francisco’s Geary Theater, The Black Rider has had its run extended until October 10, and you should need no further urging to make tracks northward. This is Robert Wilson’s retelling of the German folk legend of the Huntsman who casts magic bullets supplied by the Devil in order to win his sweetie’s hand, with dire consequences; another version of the plot found its way into Weber’s Der Freischütz. Wilson’s production, with book by William Burroughs and songs by Tom Waits, has been brought to San Francisco by the American Conservatory Theater en route from London’s Barbican to Sydney. It is one of the — if not the — most thrilling theatrical experiences of my young life. More next week.


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