Ariadne Unhinged

May 08, 2008

The New York Times

Gia Kourlas

In Greek mythology, as in life, few situations are more excruciating than being dumped and not knowing why. The newest production by Gotham Chamber Opera, being performed at the Abrons Arts Center, brings just such a distraught heroine to the surface in Ariadne Unhinged.

The mezzo-soprano Emily Langford Johnson stars as Ariadne, the Cretan princess abandoned by her lover, Theseus. Stranded on the island of Naxos, she has only her thoughts to comfort her, and they are of little solace.

Ariadne Unhinged, a collaboration between the choreographer Karole Armitage and the conductor Neal Goren, who is the company’s artistic director, transports Ariadne to a place where madness engulfs her, yet she never descends into hair-pulling hysteria. Vera Lutter’s exceptional set, with three movable panes resembling glass negatives, provides a shimmering window into Ariadne’s hallucinations.

The production weaves together Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, featuring a performance on the theorbo by Daniel Swenberg; Haydn’s solo cantata Arianna a Naxos, with piano accompaniment; and Schoenberg’s strange and surreal Pierrot Lunaire. Music is arranged in collage form, allowing Ms. Johnson to move restlessly through Ariadne’s torments — her piercing sorrow in the slow, painful Monteverdi (“Let me die!”), her bittersweet flashbacks during the Haydn and her anguish, exposed and raw, in Pierrot Lunaire.

Throughout the ever-shifting terrain Ms. Armitage puts Ms. Johnson through her paces. Wearing furry boots and a voluminous, pleated dress by the costume designer Peter Speliopoulos that crinkles and shimmers like foil, she performs a beautiful mirrored duet with Frances Chiaverini, who appears, in a gleaming silver leotard, as her double. When Theseus, played by a bare-chested, handsome Ryan Kelly, appears in a vision, she slaps him silly.

Despite a few clunky moments when Ms. Armitage’s dancers introduce props that correspond to lyrics in Pierrot Lunaire — giant knitting needles, or a moon on a stick — the choreography remains pure. Ms. Armitage emphasizes line throughout, incorporating attitude turns and pristine arabesques that show, as when Ms. Chiaverini lowers to a lunge and lifts her arm with a slow, sure sweep, how seemingly rigid positions can melt and mold shapes (and emotions) like the voice.

The set, the costumes and Clifton Taylor’s lighting work together to give this production a tantalizing, metallic sheen. But just as alluring is Ms. Armitage’s direction. She has found a way to show cold-blooded despair with tenderness.