Ariadne in Naxos, Glimmerglass Festival, Cooperstown, New York – review

Since Francesca Zambello took over the Glimmerglass Festival in 2010, she has built audiences by stressing the attractions and beauty of the countryside. This year her artistic product reflects the geography. The incident on which Theodore Dreiser based his classic novel – the source for Tobias Picker’s opera An American Tragedy – took place in Cortland, 80 milews from Cooperstown. And with many towns in upstate New York having Greek names, why not add another in which to set Strauss’s opera (altering the title’s preposition from “auf” to “in”)?

The idea of an entertainment ordinarily given by Vienna’s richest man taking place in a New York barn is incongruous to be sure, as was the chaos at the start of the Prologue, as performers and crew ran through the audience, some bearing live animals, in preparation for rehearsal. Wynn Harmon, on supercilious form as the Major Domo, brought a degree of order, but Zambello’s production is easily the liveliest Ariadne I’ve seen. Amid the frenzy, it seemed a wonder that the Music Master and the Dancing Master (Adam Cioffari and John Kapusta, both excellent) brought the Opera, with its mandated blend of comedy and tragedy, to the stage at all.

Zerbinetta, the star comedienne, urges improvisation, and the Opera has just that quality here, with characters from the Prologue on hand to help out, including the high-minded Composer. Normally a young man played by a mezzo-soprano, here she is a woman, which gives a new twist to the Composer’s sexually charged encounter with Zerbinetta, yet the moment proves as affecting as ever. Both Troy Hourie’s sets and Erik Teague’s costumes are motley but the sets are aptly sparse for Bacchus’s arrival.

Glimmerglass’s star of the summer, Christine Goerke, seen reclining against a bale of hay, is a memorable Ariadne; her huge voice is under sure control and sounds vibrant from top to bottom. Rachele Gilmore offers a vivacious, securely sung Zerbinetta. Catherine Martin, in bright but sometimes harsh voice as the Composer, appears to preside at the piano for the Opera, with Zerbinetta often next to her on the bench. Corey Bix is an effective Bacchus and Carlton Ford sings the Harlequin’s serenade beautifully. The conductor Kathleen Kelly draws polished playing from the chamber orchestra. Kelley Rourke’s contemporary English translation for the Prologue and comic scenes, with references to things such as production standards on the Jersey Shore, adds to the high spirits.

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