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Soprano soars in Spain's 'Ariadne'

Thursday, November 28, 2002

By Robert Croan, Post-Gazette Senior Editor

BARCELONA -- In a lifetime of opera-going, there is an occasional rare performance that defines a particular work and becomes a standard by which all future performances will be judged. In my own experience early on, there was Strauss' "Salome" at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, conducted by Fritz Reiner with Ljuba Welitsch in the title role. In the '70s, there was Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" in Salzburg, celebrating the 80th birthday of conductor Karl Bohm with a perfect ensemble cast led by Gundula Janowitz and Peter Schreier.

This season it was another Strauss opera -- aptly timed, because Pittsburgh Opera will produce his "Elektra" in the spring -- but it was not one of the tragedies. Rather it was that most rarified of operatic comedies, "Ariadne auf Naxos," a piece with the unique premise of a serious opera that must be performed with a troupe of low comedians, because of the faulty scheduling of an inept manager. And it took place at the beautiful and underrated Liceu Theater of Barcelona.

I caught the second of nine performances on Oct. 23. The date was significant, because it marked the 25th anniversary of Edita Gruberova in the role of Zerbinetta, and also it was her last when this run ended on Nov. 12.

With her husband, Friedrich Haider, conducting most stylishly, and a delightfully updated staging by Uwe Eric Laufenberg, the 56-year-old Slovak-born soprano scored a triumph, negotiating the most difficult aria in the coloratura repertory as well if not better than when I heard her in this role at the Met in 1979. Vocally, she seemed to be unscathed by the intervening years. Physically, she was still saucy and credible, and most importantly, she used the fiendish little quirks of her vocal part to underline every comic-dramatic point. She literally stopped the show with more than 10 minutes of applause at the end of her aria.

Gruberova's incomparable Zerbinetta is now history, fortunately preserved (in audio only) on two complete recordings -- Decca, 1977, with Leontyne Price and Georg Solti; and Philips, 1988, with Jessye Norman and Kurt Mazur.

It should be mentioned that her comedic colleagues were a splendid male quartet led by the animated Harlequin of Wojtek Drabowicz. Lafenberg, setting much of the action on the beach, funny bathing suits and all, in the era of this opera's first performances (circa World War I), heightened the humor by giving the comedians their due while allowing the serious protagonists full sway when their time was due.

The sterner side was dominated by Adrienne Pieczonka, a luscious-toned Canadian beauty whose dark-hued voice and elegant bearing made a perfect foil for Gruberova, without every being overshadowed by the lighter soprano's vocal and physical pyrotechnics. Her monologue, "Es gibt ein Reich," had the makings of great singing on its own merits, and in her reunion with the God Bacchus, she had a tenor -- Kansan Robert Dean Smith -- who sailed through a role that has been the downfall of many a more famous Heldentenor with ease and attractiveness of tone. She also had three ladies for her sidekicks known as Naiad, Driad and Echo, who sang their tricky little trios accurately and consistently in tune.

"Ariadne" was originally composed as a finale to Strauss' incidental music to Moliere's play, "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." The revised, now standard version begins instead with a prologue that sets up the situation and includes the character of the opera-within-the-opera's composer -- based on Mozart -- and performed by a mezzo-soprano (like Cherubino in Mozart's "Figaro"). That character, who has a great aria in praise of the art of music, was exquisitely portrayed by Swiss mezzo Heidi Brunner, who happens to be the wife of Liceu director Bertrand de Billy.

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