Out of the Labyrinth

Gotham’s out-there “Arianna;” Saffer graces the Philharmonia Baroque

Neil Goren’s Gotham Opera scored a coup on February 10 with the U.S. stage premiere of Handel’s 1734 “Arianna in Creta,” a fine work the neglect of which seems hard to fathom.

One after the other, “minor” Handel works keep appearing and proving to be very valid operas—“Partenope” as done by Glimmerglass and NYCO, and the “Siroe” done at BAM are other recent cases in point. Gotham plans to offer several operas dealing with the mythic theme of Ariadne, some of them, like Handel’s, including Theseus (Teseo) and the Minotaur. The Gotham performs at least one show a year in the wonderful little Harry de Jur Playhouse in the Henry Street Settlement down by the Williamsburg Bridge. Rarely can this Lower East Side venue have been so full of New York movers and shakers as on this occasion, which augurs well for Gotham’s financial future.

Christopher Alden and his production team readily attained a deliberately pursued ugliness in sets (crumbling chartreuse and pink walls), costumes (don’t ask) and stage deportment (much staring into corners and off into space).

No need to clothe this story in togas and olive wreathes, but the question remains—why work this kind of deconstructive disjunction on operatic texts audiences don’t know, like “Arianna” and “Imeneo” (a comedy which received a similarly affectless, scratchily obsessive Aldenizing at Glimmerglass, albeit in a more pleasing aesthetic)? It might be more interesting to see singers replacing the too-familiar stock comic attitudes of “Così fan tutte” or “Elisir d’amore” by channeling Alden’s blank stares and sub-David Lynch pop culture appropriations. The “edginess” here seemed entirely appliquéd.

That Alden has an eye for arresting images is undeniable. The first sight of Caroline Worra’s Arianna, a pink-dressed aging deb obsessively knitting a magenta garment with the fiendish energy of a reborn Mme. Defarge, was both striking and funny; one’s approbation drained as it became clear that we were to learn nothing more about this character. Whether she was given giant knitting needles—as in the first-act curtain aria (which the generally good and often very impressive Worra tended to shriek), an old-fashioned typewriter with which to disrupt the music of one of Teseo’s arias, or standard issue “Marilyn” props (a fur coat and dark sunglasses) in which to sing an aria while lying under Teseo’s bed, Arianna remained nothing but a washed-out, hyper-anxious rich virago. This characterization—one of the more repellent, and repellently misogynistic, ones on view in any recent New York operatic staging—seems to me to derive in no way from and to add exactly nothing to the music and text at hand.

Similarly, Teseo as an almost pre-adolescent gum-chewing sad sack was as de-heroicized as possible. Alden’s idea of filling out Handelian musical time involves too much “make work” stuff such as Teseo taking mechanical toys out of a box during his first aria.

Mezzo Katherine Rohrer, still on a learning curve as a Handelian stylistically, showed some real flashes of promise throughout.

I enjoyed the post-intermission staging more, as the secondary couple—the lusciously deep-voiced mezzo Jennifer Hines (Carilda) and clear-timbred soprano Hanan Alattar (Alceste, Teseo’s buddy)—were actually allowed to interact instead of staring at walls or at the floor. From the start, Alattar, a singer new to me, almost single-handedly undermined Alden’s anomie-laden concept with her vocal warmth and communicative ardor. Hines’ Carilda—Arianna’s friend and rival—started the evening in black suit and beret, very Teresa Wright, and Gabriel Berry’s best inspiration here; soon enough she had to disfigure her face with lipstick. (Was there a single person in the theater who hadn’t seen this tired trope before?) I’d like to hear all four of the women in the cast in further Handelian ventures.

Fluent countertenor Alan Dornak, a one-note sight gag dramatically as a Frankenstein’s monster type of Tauride, tended, like Worrra, in loud passages to over-sing, given the intimate venue. Kevin Burdette is more practiced at Aldenian loucheness than at Handelian roulades; dressed as a nerdy guard type, Daniel Gross sang his brief part (Il sonno, Sleep) well and (after his gratuitously violent dispatch by Alcesre) lay patiently on the stage. I didn’t care for the lapses into screaming and “ironic” pauses in the recitatives—to me they communicated only the same smugness as the knowing laughs they evoked in a few corners of the crowd. (“Oh, it’s just conventional operatic Italian, it doesn’t mean anything.”) I appreciated that Alden and Goren were trying to get beyond the usual Emma Kirkby-ish precious use of text in Handelian performance, but it didn’t consistently work; surely there’s a way of adding meaning that’s “on” the words, not ironically glossing them.

Apart from that, there was a great deal to enjoy in the musical performance, especially Goren’s alert tempi and the fine work of the continuo players—Jennifer Peterson (harpsichord), Thomas Jocks (cello) and Richard Stone (theorbo).

A very good example of historically informed performance was shown by the Bay Area’s wonderful Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra under the ever-sprightly Nic McGegan on a February 23 visit to Zankel Hall. Critics tend to be swayed by their own past exposure to music, and as I went to grad school in Berkeley I confess an abiding affection for these players and their merry-andrew conductor. The string players, led by Katherine Kyme and Lisa Weiss on violin and Phoebe Carrai on cello, are particularly outstanding. On this occasion, I was less happy with the natural horns, which sounded in serious need of taming in the concert’s opening bars, the overture from “Samson.”

Nimble soprano Lisa Saffer, a frequent PBO collaborator, lent her musical class and insightful approach to text and decoration to five arias, including “Falsa imagine” from “Ottone,” Cleopatra’s “Se pietà” from “Giulio Cesare” and, as an encore,” the delightful Scottish-rhythmed “To fleeting pleasures” from “Samson.” An excellent stylist and technician, Saffer wields a timbre somewhat narrow for the Handelian grand heroines, but she’s hard to beat in the lighter “sister” roles. I wanted a bit rounder a tone for “Sweet Bird” from “L’allegro ed il penseroso,” though her interaction with excellent flautist Stephen Schultz was impressive, and she shone in a sexy, confident “Voglio amare” from “Partenope” in which she starred at Glimmerglass and NYCO.

Much as I enjoyed Saffer’s work, the concert’s real highlight was the Concerto Grosso Handel penned for use in the intermission of “Alexander’s Feast,” in which Kyme, Weiss and Carrai really rocked. The suite from Rameau’s “Les paladins,” while it had some charming tunes and fine examples of this ingenious composer’s quirky orchestration—the tambourine in the two contradance movements, the plucked strings elsewhere—held my interest less at the end of the concert. Suites as a musical form run that risk, in the manner of short story collections. Once again I felt let down by the horns, but the playing was otherwise distinguished if not—naturally enough—as characteristically Gallic-sounding as William Christe’s Arts Florissants have accustomed New York ears.

McGegan puts on a good show, dispensing charm, just enough informative chat to the audience and a bobbing-and-weaving exhortation to his players to bring out the dance rhythms underlying this lovely music.

David Shengold (shengold@yahoo.com) writes about opera for “Time Out New York,” “Opera News,” “Opera” and other venues.

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