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Christine Goerke steals the show in disappointing HGO production of Ariadne auf Naxos

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Christine Goerke, right, is one of the most extraordinary artists on HGO’s stage this season. Photo by Felix Sanchez

It is reasonable to want Houston Grand Opera to finish what has been a revelatory season with its crowning achievement, a definitive performance of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s splendid Ariadne auf Naxos. But maybe such expectations are unrealistic.

The company started last October with a lavish staging of Madame Butterfly, outraged some opera-goers with a shocking Peter Grimes and Dead Man Walking, not to mention a groundbreaking Lucia di Lammermoor, successfully premiered the first mariachi opera, To Cross The Face of the Moon, and then satisfied all with a minimalist yet highly inspired Marriage of Figaro. The latter was so popular that another performance was added to the run.

HGO’s Ariadne is nice but unexceptional. In many ways, it is the most complex opera of this season, both musically and in terms of its multi-layered themes. It has, however, received the least imaginative production of the season, with largely traditional set and costume designs by Robert Perdziola and very straightforward direction from John Cox. This seems a paradox, considering that much of the subject matter of this opera is theater itself. Being at times a self-reflexive work, one expects the production team to have had a field day with the piece.

Three women have to carry us through this metaphorical and philosophical opera, and they need to be equal players. Two of them came in short, while the third went the extra mile and stole the show.

In the prologue it is Zerbinetta, I believe, who refers to The Composer with contempt, saying, “his endless top notes are irritating.” Funny when mentioned within the opera, unfortunately this was exactly the case with Susan Graham, who didn’t seem in good voice on Friday night. It was as if she couldn’t hear herself. She seemed even out of breath at times. Most of her top notes were distinctly sharp or flat, and vocally she wandered throughout the scene, giving us far too many sudden fortissimos.

Strauss gave some of his most glorious phrases to this character, and I kept waiting for Graham to settle in and dazzle, but she didn’t. There is also the matter of her acting. Yes, The Composer has a stormy persona, but that doesn’t mean the part is one-dimensional. “He” has to do more than stamp his foot time and again.

Just a month ago at Dallas Opera, Laura Claycomb gave an exacting, emotional performance as Gilda in Verdi’s popular Rigoletto. Her voice was rich and confident, clear in the high notes, her phrasing smooth and inventive. Thrilling to hear, she was also a very convincing actor, vulnerable and endearing as the hunchbacked jester’s beautiful daughter. This being the only other role I’ve seen her perform, however, it appears that she is much more attuned to Verdi’s flowing Italian than Strauss’ dense Austrian-flavored German.

Her interpretation of Zerbinetta on Friday was largely unremarkable. It seemed she was protecting her voice in order to make it through the thing. Her high notes were raspy, sometimes thin. She struggled with the coloratura flourishes in the lengthy second-scene “Opera” aria. She looked tired. This might have been unnoticeable if she had exuded more charisma. Zerbinetta is an “all or nothing” role, and Claycomb stayed safely in the middle.

Graham and Claycomb were decidedly awkward in their brief intimate duet, but not in the right way. Their realization of affection should be the high-point of the first act — it should leave the viewer feeling uneasy but also excited. Strauss knew what he was doing here, creating a lovely tension between the two divas, but it just didn’t come through on Friday

As The Prima Donna in the prologue and Ariadne in The Opera, Christine Goerke was confident and insistent, magnificent in every respect and clearly at the top of her game. Funny and dramatic, she seemed entirely natural in these roles, as if they had been written expressly for her. As well, her commanding voice was the only one that prevailed over a largely dominant orchestra. She has a powerful, fully resonant quality that would make her an ideal Wagnerian singer, and one can only imagine what her recent interpretation of Kundry in Parsifal at Turin’s Teatro Regio was like. I’d safely bet that it was incredible.

Standing on her lonely rock and beckoning to what she believes is Hermes ready to escort her towards death, a spine-tingling moment, she was one of the most extraordinary artists on HGO’s stage this season. She is the figurative and literal dénouement of this production. Goerke returns next year to sing Princess Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo, which is not to be missed.

The men did quite well throughout the evening. In particular, Rodell Rosel brought great finesse to the Dance Master in the Prologue, and young singer Boris Dyakov was an extremely appealing Harlequin, with a strong, lyrical voice and a stand-out approach to Strauss’ challenging phrasing. Alexey Dolgov is a formidable heldentenor, demonstrating elegance and a dreamy demeanor as Bacchus, though he was a bit pressed to compete with Goerke in their epic duet. I won’t hold it against him, since he was singing with someone from the God realm, even though he was supposed to be the god.   

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