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An Experience Of Operatic Contrasts:
Verdi's "Don Carlo" and Richard Strauss' "Ariadne on Naxos"
By Henry C. Mayer
A synopsis of "Don Carlo": Don Carlo and Elizabeth de Valois, Princess of France, are in love. For reasons of state, however, she is obliged to marry Carlo's father, King Philip II of Spain. Carlo confides his love to Rodrigo, a member of the Spanish. Court's inner circle. He advises Carlo to forget his stepmother and ask for the governorship of Flanders, whose people are increasingly restless under Spanish rule. Philip angrily refuses his son's request. Elizabeth's lady in waiting, Princess Eboli, whose passion for Carlo is unrequited, tells Philip about Carlo's love for Elizabeth.
Philip has Carlo imprisoned and questions the Grand Inquisitor about the propriety of asking for the death sentence. The Inquisitor demands that Philip denounce Rodrigo as the greater menace. The King refuses. Embittered by Elizabeth's supposed infidelity, Philip rails at her. Eboli repents her rash confession and resolves to rescue Carlo. In the confusion following the treacherous shooting of Rodrigo, this is accomplished.
A synopsis of "Ariadne on Naxos": following a prologue, the opera begins with Ariadne's lament of her abandonment by her first and only love, Theseus. Zerbinetta and her retinue unsuccessfully try dancing and comedy to cheer Ariadne. Then the god of youth and cheerfulness, Bacchus, who also has experienced trauma, arrives and an awakening love between him and Ariadne transforms both of them.
You may know something of jet lag. This observer has recently experienced cultural lag. After watching "Don Carlo," I then took in Indiana University School of Music's production of "Ariadne" twenty-hour hours later. I felt a little like a baseball pitcher who threw two complete games of a double header.
I can only describe this experience as one of contrast. "Don Carlo" is a semi-historical play about real people. "Ariadne" has its origins in Greek mythology. Verdi was chiefly interested in the struggle for human and political freedom, which was going on around him and in which he was active. Strauss was captivated by both Greek mythology and the theme of transformation through love, recently expressed by his contemporary, Richard Wagner. These two operas also represent quite different styles of operatic composition.
"Don Carlo" offers five distinct opportunities for five highly talented artists: three men and two women. Top honors went to Dong-Jian Gong (Philip) and Nicholas Loren (Rodrigo). The efforts of Patrick Denniston (Carlo), Maryanne Telese (Elizabeth) and Susan Shafer (Eboli) should receive due recognition, as should the hard work of Director Albert Sherman, Set Designer Peter Harrison, Chorus Master Robin Stamper and Lighting Designer H. Charles Schmidt. Top honors also go to Alessandro Siciliani, whose mastery of Italian opera has few peers.
In "Ariadne," Rebecca Polk gave a scintillating rendering of Zerbinetta's aria, which is generally recognized as one of the most difficult coloratura numbers in all opera. Though Angela Brown (Ariadne) and Joseph McKesson (Baachus) deserved the applause they received during what is a difficult one-act production, so did Designer Robert O'Hearn and Lighting Designer Allen R. White. Their work was breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty.
A final note of contrast: though in some respects, "Don Carlo" marks an advance in Verdi's operatic mastery, it still is an expression of 19th century Italian opera. Strauss, although indebted to Wagnerian inspiration, is looking toward this century. Both operas, as now presented, were carefully revised.