Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Of Strauss, slapstick, and Ariadne auf Naxos

The commedia troupe strut their stuff in Ariadne auf Naxos. Production photos by Jeffrey Dunn.

Denni Sayers can't help herself; when someone is hitting somebody else with a big kielbasa, you can tell she just has to get involved.

"Brilliant, that's brilliant!" she giggles as she launches herself from the director's chair of a rehearsal of Boston Lyric Opera's Ariadne auf
(which opens tomorrow). "But can you hit him on this note - " she turns to the rehearsal pianist, who responds with a tinkling phrase - "rather than this one?"

She takes the sausage from the tenor and wham! smacks the bass with it on the downbeat.

"Oh and hit him right there," she says, pointing to a precise spot on his forehead. "Got it? Right there." Wham!

The bass sinks in a graceful spiral to the floor; the tenor waves his blunt instrument around like a tom-tom, and the room cracks up. And Sayers returns, still giggling, to the director's chair to dream up another prime slice of slapstick.

It's a typical moment from Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera that sounds like high tragedy but often plays more like a Warner Brothers cartoon. Intentionally. Because Richard Strauss's masterpiece is the tale of an opera company - specializing in a chunk of high tragedy (about the abandoned Ariadne weeping on her rock) - forced to share the stage with a commedia dell'arte troupe. That would be Harlequin, Truffaldino and their comrades (see above) - but you can also think of their many descendants, from Charlie Chaplin to Roger Rabbit, instead - who specialize not in high tragedy but low comedy, in fact precisely in setting a banana peel before the path of august convention.

And Sayers (above left) seems like the perfect person to pull these two opposed artistic worlds into conjunction. Although according to her, Ariadne isn't just about deflating the pretensions of high opera; instead, it's about a synthesis of high and low, a new way of looking at life and art from both perspectives at once.

Funny thing is, she seems like the perfect person to pull that off, too. With her sparkling eyes and punkette 'do, you might imagine her banging her head in a club on Lansdowne Street. But instead, she's expending her considerable choreographic skill on finding just the right physical comedy to match one of the subtlest, and quirkiest, scores of the twentieth century.

That's right. Choreographic skill. "To me, it was a natural progression from choreographer to director," she explains. "Since choreography is all about finding character through movement, I found myself asked to help more and more not just with set-pieces of dance, but with dramatic scenes as well. I seemed to be good at helping singers get from point A to point B both physically and emotionally." Gradually, Sayers was cast more and more often as assistant director, and today she generally commands her own productions, although in the case of Ariadne, she's shepherding the vision of Neil Armfeld, a long-time associate who helmed this acclaimed production at the Welsh National Opera.

She's working with an entirely new cast, however. "But that's what keeps it fresh," she laughs. "Working with new people, finding the production inside them - that makes it a discovery again."

But what about those moments when she jumps in and says, "No, hit him here"?

Sayers gets a wicked look in her eye. "I know, I can't help myself! But the whole point is to find it organically, from within the performers. You try to draw it out of them, not 'set it on' them. And this cast has been wonderful - the working atmosphere has just been wonderful. I've got [rising conducting star] Erik Nielsen to handle the orchestra, and the cast sounds ravishing." [Speaking from having heard one rehearsal, in which Rachele Gilmore sailed through Zerbinetta's famous aria, they oh, so do.]

"Still . . ." Sayers gets that gleam in her eye again. "Sometimes a singer needs a little help finding it. In releasing it, I should say. That's where I come in."

Indeed, sometimes it seems that singers have that same problem with dancing that white men have with jumping. "They're very different from dancers," Sayers agrees. "A dancer feels the beat in the body; a singer sees it on the page. I can count beats with a dancer; with a singer, I have to say 'You have to get there by the end of the eighth notes.' What's great is that they get that. Luckily, I learned to read music as a child, so I don't have to work from a tape of the score or anything, like so many movie and theatrical directors do who work in opera. The music itself is right there in my lap. Which is a very good thing," she says with a meaningful look. "Because this score is so tricky!"

Which it is; Strauss is always shifting his time signatures and musical texture. "And of course you can never forget that a singer is always singing. The thing is to get them to not obsess about that as they move," Sayers explains. "As a choreographer you generally work from the floor, from the legs. As an opera choreographer, you work from the breath. You always have to support that, you always have to be in sympathy with that. And you have to design your movement directionally, to keep the vocal focus where it should be. Even if you're choreographing an intimate little conversation, you have to enable your singers to project a huge volume of sound out to people sitting in the dark a hundred feet away."

And then, in the case of Ariadne auf Naxos, you also have to deal with the big sausage. "Actually it's not all slapstick!" Sayers insists. "The opera isn't about ridiculing high tragedy at all - although maybe it's a little bit about ridiculing self-seriousness. Ariadne has to learn to get on with her life, doesn't she? And she does (below), with a little help from Harlequin and Truffaldino - and Bacchus (who swoops in on a gangplank in this production). The opera is in fact a profound exploration of how you move on from a terrible loss. What I hope this production conveys is a vision of two worlds colliding and learning something from each other. The tragedians and the comedians, for all their differences, end up in mutual admiration. And that's a beautiful thing."

The transfiguring finale of Ariadne auf Naxos.