Onslaught of Cheeky Operas Lands Audience in Nowheresville

A few years ago, I asked Sir Peter Jonas, the longtime head of the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, to characterize the difference between the American and European approaches to producing opera. “American companies like the Met tend to view opera as entertainment,” he said. “In Europe, we see it as serious business, an art form that has the capacity to provoke.” No American opera production I know of has been quite so determinedly provocative as, say, last summer’s Die Rosenkavalier at the Salzburg Festival, which gilded the silver rose with graphic depictions of sex in a bordello that were nowhere called for in the libretto. Nonetheless, the sort of Old World seriousness that Sir Peter was talking about is increasingly in evidence on this side of the Atlantic, especially among smaller companies that give directors carte blanche to do pretty much what they like.

Regulars at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown have come to expect that at least one new production every summer will divide the audience into two camps: one finding it “pretentious and self-indulgent,” the other finding it “refreshing and good fun.” 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.

The evening was a muddle.

The strategy employed by Mr. Alden and many of his fellow provocateurs (among them his identical twin brother, David, who happens to be one of Peter Jonas’ favorite directors) has become so familiar as to seem formulaic. It boils down to this:

1) Since most operas, and especially Handel’s, are hopelessly antiquated, the events must be reset in a locale that is recognizably contemporary, but not too specific; 2) if the events include terrible deeds (as those in most operas do), make the set as ugly as possible; 3) the performers must be directed to behave like figures in a cartoon, not like people in a real-life situation; 4) the tone of the staging must be uncertain, neither tragic nor comic but always ironic; 5) to get a laugh, have the singer make fun of the aria by looking bored or in pain; 6) since the opera’s plots are too silly for anyone to get emotionally involved, engage the audience by keeping it in a constant state of conjecture about what any gesture, movement or object might signify; 7) the less the audience understands what’s happening, the better.

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?”

Onslaught of Cheeky Operas Lands Audience in Nowheresville