”Prima la parola." There's an old argument about whether words or music come first in opera. Words certainly came first in the case of Handel's "Arianna in Creta," written in 1734; they were lifted, and adapted, from an earlier opera, Pariati's "Teseo in Creta." And as the opera is done by the Gotham Chamber Opera, which unveiled a new production on Thursday night at the Harry de Jur Playhouse, words are a focus: this "Arianna" is pure sung drama.
The director, Christopher Alden, explores the aesthetics of ugliness, taking a hard look at exactly what it means to be confined in a difficult story for a long period of time, sticking lifelike characters together in shabby 1960's-vintage rooms with a few pieces of unattractive furniture, and having them deliver their recitative like spoken dialogue. And yet - a measure of the production's success - the lasting impression is of the music. More precisely, it's of the exultant energy of talented young singers flinging themselves headlong into their parts, throwing caution (and concern about sounding pretty) to the winds, and giving everything they have to getting their roles across.
There are plenty of ways to approach performing Handel, but I like this one, which embraces the idea that more than being merely lovely, this music should be raw and vital. Neal Goren, the company's founder and conductor, led an energetic, throaty reading in the theater's tiny pit. In a program note, Mr. Goren hypothesized that the reason this fine "Arianna" has not been performed often is that it is so difficult, and this performance bore him out. Certainly the role of Teseo (Theseus), written for the castrato Carestini, is one of the hardest in the book, every aria a flood of notes spewing out as if from a fire hydrant. Katherine Rohrer, a mezzo-soprano, was deeply impressive, playing it convincingly as an angry teenage boy of about 16, all hormones and intensity, and hurling her agile voice (full but not dark) up and down the scale as she executed various bits of stage business, like brushing her teeth, without any break in the cascade of notes.
Caroline Worra also had a star turn in the title role, showing a free voice with a touch of metal that helped carry it to ringing volume, particularly on her top notes. (In her first aria, Mr. Alden had her put her hand to her head and wince every time she let loose a particularly big one.) Another showstopper was an aria she sang entirely quietly, with her head leaning against the empty bed where Teseo had slept. Hanan Alattar, as Teseo's friend Alceste, showed a lovely, clear and moving soprano with warmth behind the notes. As Alceste's beloved, Carilda, Jennifer Hines produced a deep, thick contralto from a tiny body - initially hooty, but less so after the vocal calisthenics required of her in the second half. Also hooty at first was Alan Dornak, the countertenor playing the Cretan general Tauride (a role originally written for a mezzo-soprano), garbed like Frankenstein's monster, down to the clunky platform boots. Kevin Burdette was appropriately stiff as Minos, and Daniel Gross's fine, creamy voice was woefully underused in the tiny role of Il Sonno (Sleep).
The Gotham Chamber Opera specializes in quality productions of little-known works with high musical and production values. This "Arianna" should cement its reputation.