Ariadne Unhinged

Opera News

Joanne Sydney Lessner

Gotham Chamber Opera's Ariadne Unhinged, a collaboration with choreographer Karole Armitage, took the recital conceit of juxtaposing settings of identical text by different composers and expanded it into a full-length choreographed monodrama. Here, the story, rather than precise text, was the common thread: Ariadne, Princess of Crete, finds herself abandoned on the island of Naxos by her faithless lover, Theseus.

On May 7, mezzo-soprano Emily Langford Johnson sang Ariadne (Brenda Patterson performed on alternate nights), while her feverish imaginings were given life by Armitage's troupe of limber, expressive dancers. For an hour and ten minutes, Johnson vaulted from Monterverdi's Lamento di Arianna to Haydn's solo cantata Arianna a Naxos to Schonberg's Pierrot Lunaire and back again, ultimately completing each piece in its entirety. Though the Schonberg has no overt connection to the Ariadne tale, its fantastic imagery and tonal anarchy provided a useful medium to depict the heroine's descent into sadness. (Perhaps it was suggested by the commedia dell'arte subplot in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, unused here.)

Looking like a prior-day Carrie Bradshaw in a flouncy, strapless metallic dress and wedge-heeled Wookie boots, Johnson was a committed, musically secure Ariadne. She gave herself fully to the concept and direction, gesturing gracefully through the reflective moving panels of the coolly elegant set, and shifting with little apparent effort from one musical style to the next. She was at her most confident and authoritative in the Schonberg (despite some patchy German), and though her voice was a bit steely in the Monteverdi, she displayed a luminous ring in the Haydn. It was a tall order, but Johnson gamely tackled every demand and acquitted herself beautifully.

In her notes, Armitage observed that the challenge was "to make the music and psychology of different eras come together as a cohesive whole." Yet paradoxically, for all the contrast inherent in the music, the evening suffered from a sense of sameness. This was due in part to a lack of variation within each composer's work, and a certain emotional artificiality. The two Haydn arias were the exception, offering Ariadne an escape from the island into a remembered past and a fantasy future. In "Dove sei, mio bel tesoro," Johnson sang longingly and sincerely, as her doppelganger danced a pas de deux with Theseus. Then, in the bravura "Ah! Che morir vorrei," Johnson physically attacked Theseus - a deliciously shocking choreographic turn that also freed her up for some of her best singing.