Arianna in Creta

Jul 22, 2001

The New York Observer

Charles Michener

 Here in the city, the pacesetter is a spunky little group called the Gotham Chamber Opera, which, in a half-dozen or so productions of unheard works from the Baroque period and the 20th century, has succeeded in making operatic cheekiness chic.

Getting the sort of people who occupy the better boxes at the Met to haul themselves down to the Lower East Side for another cultural fix seems a remarkable feat. But for a certain class of New Yorkers, there’s no better subject to hash out over the chicken hash at Swifty’s than the pros and cons of that operatic rarity you were clever enough to discover the other night. Not surprisingly, the Gotham’s latest rarity, for which an opening-night crowd of haute-bohemians filled the jewel-box auditorium at the Henry Street Settlement on Feb. 10, was the American stage premiere of Arianna in Creta ( Ariadne in Crete), a 272-year-old opera by Handel, whose ongoing revival has been a gold mine for adventurous directors. On this occasion, the director was Christopher Alden, a theatrical wild man of long standing.

Four years ago, the Gotham (then known as the Henry Street Chamber Opera) started with a bang, thanks to Mr. Alden’s staging of Il Sogno di Scipione ( The Dream of Scipio), by the 15-year-old Mozart. The director’s madcap approach was entirely appropriate to a work of sophomoric genius, and the evening was a delight. Arianna in Creta, however, is a mature masterpiece (composed in 1733 at the height of Handel’s triumphant career in London), and its tale of how Theseus, the Prince of Athens, penetrates the Labyrinth in Crete and vanquishes the Minotaur who guards the sacrificial Ariadne is one of the most potent of the Greek myths. Something more than madcap was called for here, and Mr. Alden dug deep into his arsenal.

True to form, Mr. Alden transported the myth of Ariadne to a sterile, shabby, institutional room with a few pieces of worn furniture, a crystal overhead light fixture and peeling walls painted a virulent shade of green. The ugliness was egregiously eye-straining, and during the intermission I overheard three guesses about what might have replaced ancient Crete. Someone said, “Communist Albania.” Another said, “A South American banana republic.” A third said, “An insane asylum.” I also heard someone ask, “Is it supposed to be Kafkaesque or Monty Pythonesque?”-a reference to the Michael Palin–like figure of Tauride, King Minos’ captain, who wore a goofy, deranged grin under what might have been a Nazi fighter pilot’s helmet.

In this bleak, bewildering Nowheresville, the singers were obliged to meet the challenge of one of Handel’s most demanding scores while behaving like idiots. When Theseus screwed up his courage by compulsively brushing his teeth without breaking vocal stride, the effect was hilarious. When Ariadne sang a long lament with her face pressed ludicrously against the side of a mattress, I wanted to shout, “Just stand up and sing the damn thing, will you?”

As usual with the Gotham productions, the musical performance was exceptionally vibrant. The small period-instrument orchestra, led by the company’s artistic director, Neal Goren, was sensitive and buoyant. The singers, despite some difficulties in fitting their young voices to the intimate confines of the 350-seat hall, showed great promise. Caroline Worra made a magnetic Ariadne, although she tended to power her way through the role’s vocal treacheries. Katherine Rohrer, in the trouser role of Theseus, was in superb command of the Handelian hurdles, even with a toothbrush in her mouth. The soprano Hanan Alattar and the contralto Jennifer Hines were beautifully matched as the secondary lovers, Alceste and Carilda. Among the men, Kevin Burdette’s Minos, Alan Dornak’s Tauride and Daniel Gross’ Il Sonno were uniformly strong, if not always subtle.

But who were these characters? And what, in the end, was all the singing about? The glories of Handel’s music notwithstanding, the evening was, dramatically, a static affair. That Mr. Alden is blessed with a fertile imagination is not in doubt. His desire to make opera startling is admirable. But his Arianna (like his staging of another Handel rarity, Imeneo, at last summer’s Glimmerglass Festival) felt hermetic-sealed off from, and largely indifferent to, the audience. It suggests that Mr. Alden and his fellow provocateurs in opera have become a counterestablishment-a cult with its own membership rules. The day after Arianna’s opening night, I asked an old friend of Mr. Alden’s how he comes up with his theatrical ideas. “Christopher is an artist,” she said, “and like all artists, he gives you his dreams.”

“Ah,” I said, thinking of how Theseus threaded his way through the Labyrinth. “But how on earth do I get there?”