This week I was reminded once again how hard it is to sell 3,800 seats to an opera most people haven’t heard of. Let me backtrack to two weeks ago, when I thought it would be a fun idea for my mother and me to try to nab two of the Metropolitan Opera‘s $20 rush seats to see Carmen. These are the 200 same-day Varis tickets sold for Monday-to-Thursday performances at the Met—covered in a previous column for SundayArts. Alas, this year there are three Carmens—Elina Garanca, Olga Borodina, and Angela Gheorghiu—and because there has been a lot of buzz over Garanca, who we wanted to hear, we missed the boat by a few minutes and all the Varis rush seats were sold out by the time our turn came up. Instead, we decided to see the revival of the Moshinsky production of Ariadne auf Naxos on February 11, and we were not disappointed.
In fact, it seemed almost too easy to get our tickets to Ariadne—they were still selling them at 6 p.m., whereas on some other days I have seen a hundred people waiting in line at 1 p.m. (they don’t hand out the tickets until two hours before curtain, so basically you can spend an afternoon waiting for ticket time). For Ariadne, there’s no question we got our money’s worth. We were seated in row K about six seats from the right aisle. These seats are what I always think of as “subprime prime orchestra,” meaning they’re nice and close but not very far center. The nice thing about being in the $20 rush seats is that you’re surrounded by the sort of opera-lovers you typically find way upstairs—we were seated directly in front of a singer and a pianist, and just behind a violinist. No-one in our part of the house was snoozing or coughing or making all the little disruptions that are often a part of the concertgoing scene. The only possible complaint you could make about sitting here is the balance—percussion seemed a little too loud. A very minor complaint; the balance is typically better a little more to the center and a little higher up. But it’s great being close, and definitely a steal for $20.
So, here we were at an opera known mostly to opera buffs. Highly simplified, it’s an opera within an opera, being performed at the home of a rich man who insists on mixing a serious opera with a light entertainment. Mayhem ensues, and suffice it to say the way Ariadne gets together with Bacchus is not exactly as you may have read in the Greek myth. It is perhaps Strauss at his silliest. I do not remember liking this production so much back in the 1990s, when I saw Jessye Norman in the title role and Ruth Ann Swenson as the high-flying nymphet Zerbinetta. That’s not to say their singing wasn’t good—in fact, it is one of the best things I have ever heard Swenson sing. But this cast—Nina Stemme (Ariadne), Kathleen Kim (Zerbinetta), and Sarah Connolly (the Composer)—really brought this Strauss confection to life. Stemme, known for roles like Brünnhilde and Isolde, sang with overwrought intensity. Her face, with its large, expressive features, matches the scale of her voice and gives her a self-deluded, almost Norma Desmond quality that was highly entertaining and played well in the Met’s large auditorium. Lance Ryan, as her Bacchus, was back (he was sick on opening night), but he was the only weak note, and I assume he was still under the weather. Sarah Connolly gave the Composer the lush tone and control we’ve come to expect from her many pants roles, such as Giulio Cesare and Ariodante. (Connolly does “anguished” particularly well.) The tiny, adorable Kathleen Kim brought down the house with “Grossmächtige Prinzessin.” The aria is supposed to do that—it has some of the most difficult coloratura out there, and it goes on for more than 10 minutes. Watching the tiny Kim sing it was like watching your 8-year-old kid skip down the street—she sounded amazing, every impish move was hilarious, and it all seemed effortless. I was surprised to see that New York Times reviewer Anthony Tommasini described Kim’s performance as “vocally cautious and dramatically timid,” which seemed off the mark. That opens another can of worms, and a possible topic for a future blog: the pluses and minuses of the custom of reviewers covering an opera’s opening night versus a night later in the run.