Gotham Chamber Opera's fifth production, billed as the U.S. stage premiere of Handel's 1733 Arianna in Creta (seen February 15), offered an abundance of musical riches and a great heap of postmodern theatrical bunk. Carol Bailey's striking set suggested a timeworn, possibly war-ravaged institution, where Arianna and her unhappy companions acted out their trauma through all manner of inexplicable business: chomping on chewing gum in unison, delivering recitatives with pointless twitches and pauses, typing insistently during demanding, emotionally fraught arias. Gotham's cast executed director Christopher Alden's clichés with gusto and grace, though they deserved a staging that would support and not undermine their valiant musical efforts.
A wasted bottle-blonde à la Monroe, Caroline Worra's Arianna first knitted in a manic stupor, then wrestled with gigantic needles when torn between "love" and "disdain." The needles suggested the horns of her half-brother, the Minotaur; the web that she wrought presaged the thread with which Teseo would defeat the labyrinth; her mind and her handiwork unraveled together. It was all too clever by half, but Worra plumbed the depths of Arianna's despair, singing and acting with an arresting emotional rawness. Her voice did tend to turn shrill in the role's upper reaches.
As Carilda, Jennifer Hines smeared lipstick all over her face but also showed off a prodigiously dark, velvety, ductile mezzo-soprano and a faultless command of Handel's long vocal lines. During one aria, Katherine Rohrer (Teseo) ripped through a punishing series of runs while brushing her teeth and holding a comb in her mouth; during another, she sang with her back to the audience, facing a wall. Rohrer's voice is bright and easy on high and endlessly flexible, and her singing combines athletic flair with an appealing vulnerability. With her limpid tones and expressive warmth, Hanan Alattar made much of Alceste's brief interventions.
Kevin Burdette (Minos) triumphed over the spastic, shell-shocked persona devised for him with his dark, sturdy voice and customary dignity - though why he agreed to deliver some of his recitative as frantic patter is anyone's guess. As Tauride, countertenor Alan Dornak staggered around like one of Monty Python's loutish Gumbies and also sang with commendable agility and sometimes hooty tone. Daniel Gross was an eloquent, rich-voiced Il Sonno (Sleep).
Neal Goren and the Gotham Chamber Orchestra offered a brisk, attentive reading of Handel's score. The Harry de Jur Playhouse's mercilessly bright acoustics did not flatter the band's sometimes scratchy tone.