“Arianna in Creta” was composed in 1733, and by the time it was premiered a year later, Handel had already altered the opera substantially for the famous castrato Carestini, who was to sing the heroic Teseo, confusing the action and structure and giving Carestini a whopping seven arias and two duettos. The opera was given 14 times and then a couple more a month or so later, but soon faded from sight, returning to England only in 1946. In 1999, it was given successfully at the Göttingen Handel Festival in Germany under Nicholas McGegan, but the present Gotham Chamber Opera performances (there is one more, on Feb 18th) are the first ever in the United States and the first anywhere that are based on the composer’s original version.
The plot in brief, as given in the press notes (so as to spare poor critics from having to untangle it) with an explanation or two of my own, is as follows: The setting is ancient Crete. In order to fulfill a peace accord, seven young men and seven young women from Athens are to be fed to the Minotaur, who lives in a maze. Teseo, Prince of Athens, who has delivered the young captives to Minos (the Cretan King), asks that Minos’ daughter Ariadne (although she doesn’t know of her royal parentage) be returned to Athens. Carilda, Arianna’s pal, is to be the Minotaur’s first victim and Teseo’s attempts to save her make Ariadne jealous. Carilda loves Teseo, but Teseo’s friend Alceste loves Carilda, who is also loved by Tauride, Minos’s brutal Captain of the Guard. Theseus promises Ariadne that he will kill the Minotaur in order to save her and her friends. Theseus enters the maze, kills the Minotaur and after revealing that Arianna is Minos’s daughter, wins Ariadne.
The four year old Gotham Chamber Opera orchestra plays on period instruments under the direction of Neal Goren; Christopher Alden is responsible for the production. There’s much fine music in “Arianna;” Teseo’s arias run the gamut from tender when he professes his love for Arianna to highly virtuosic when he challenges the Minotaur or is otherwise enraged; Alceste has an aria filled with gentle legato and long lines; Arianna’s music varies between being extroverted and nervous (as she is), and mellow, as in the “nightingale” aria that ends the second act.
The performance was exciting, bright and filled with surprises. Perhaps Alden’s decision to place the action in a modern-dress nowhere, with Minos and the Minotaur turning out to be the same personage, thereby clarifying (?) Arianna’s Oedipal issues and neuroses wasn’t the clearest or cleanest way to tell the story, particularly since he played some of it for rather broad humor, but there wasn’t a dull moment and the eye remained as interested as the ear. The chartreuse walls and pink ceiling added a sort of sour flavor to the odd story.
But, of course, the singing and playing are what matters and there was little room for argument there. Goren’s 23-person orchestra played superbly, with quick, sharp attacks from the strings, dulcet oboe playing and excellent harpsichord-theorbo continuo support. His tempi were occasionally breakneck, but the singers had little trouble keeping up with him. Caroline Worra’s Arianna was a mass of anxious tics. Clearly a princess in a pink evening gown, she dispatched her rapid-fire music with glorious ease, ringing, secure high notes and great expressivity throughout the entire, wide range of the role. One wished Handel had given Arianna another aria or two. As Teseo, mezzo Katherine Rohrer had just the right macho swagger and went for broke dramatically and vocally. Asked to brush her teeth during one particularly furious aria, she actually managed it. Her fiery coloratura was splendid, but it may have been Goren’s tempi that caused her pitch to falter. Jennifer Hines displayed a dark-hued mezzo as Carilda; everything she did was impressive and her unique sound deserves to be heard more frequently. Alan Dornak played Tauride as a Frankenstein monster-type, using his big counter-tenor voice with authority and accuracy. Hanan Alattar sang Alceste with aplomb; Kevin Burdette’s dark bass suited Minos’s music well and Daniel Gross, in his one scene as Sleep (Teseo has a dream sequence), exhibited a nice baritone.
The performance took place in the wonderfully intimate Harry de Jur Playhouse on New York’s Lower East Side; acoustics and sightlines were perfect. The Gotham Chamber Opera is a company to follow – next season they’ll be offering Britten’s “Albert Herring.” And if you can get to “Arianna” for the Feb. 18th performance, you’re in for a treat.