Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Great BACCHUS Taste Test

Bacchus, the tenor role in Ariadne auf Naxos, is famously difficult to sing, not to mention a challenging role to act. The ancient Greek god of wine, associated with poetic frenzy and sensual abandon, Bacchus, aka Dionysus, is traditionally depicted as wearing a leopard skin (although not by Caravaggio, left). In this story he happens to put ashore at Ariadne's island; they both make inaccurate assumptions about the other (she thinks he's the god of death, come to take her away, and he thinks she's a seductive enchantress like the one on the last island he visited, who tried unsuccessfully to turn him into an animal); and, after they've figured out who they both are, they fall in love--and their love transforms them both. If it's unclear exactly what that means, the overhelming power of the music is the real meaning.

Gregory Carroll, who sings Bacchus in Seattle Opera's production, tries not to get too bogged down trying to analyze the myth or the layers of Hofmannsthal's symbolism; stage director Peter Kazaras, he explains, has encouraged him (and Marcy Stonikas, who sings Ariadne) to try to find the human beings in this grandiose mythic scene. Musically, Carroll, who is "new to tenor-land" (he was a lyric baritone until two years ago), also tries not to worry about singing the role "heroically," even though it's sometimes considered a "heroic tenor" or "heldentenor" part: "I don't like to think about the music vertically, as in, 'Oh, I've got to hit this high note, and then stress that note, and then the next high note is coming up.' I want to sing it horizontally, concentrating on the line, the phrase, singing from the Italian, melody-centric point-of-view."

So you can hear the challenge of Bacchus, and a variety of approaches to singing the role, here's a taste test with three great tenors singing the speech in which Bacchus tells Ariadne about his parents, and about what he feels about her, Ariadne. (In Greek myth, Bacchus was born when Zeus fell in love with a mortal woman, Semele. He said, "Semele, love me, and I vow to give you anything you want." She did, and she asked to see him in all his divine glory, seated on his throne atop Olympus; he tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted, and when he revealed his full divinity to her she exploded. But Bacchus was born!)

Bin ich ein Gott, schuf mich ein Gott,
Starb meine Mutter in Flammen dahin,
Als sich in Flammen mein Vater ihr zeigte,
Versagte der Circe Zauber an mir,
Weil ich gefeit bin, Balsam und Äther
Für sterbliches Blut in den Adern mir fliesst.
Hör' mich, Wesen, das vor mir steht,
Hör' mich, du, die sterben will:
Dann sterben eher die ewigen Sterne,
Als dass du stürbest aus meinen Armen!

I am a god, created by a god.
My mother perished in the flames
when my father showed himself to her.
Circe’s magic was powerless against me,
for I am immune. Balsam and ether
flow in my veins, not mortal blood.
Hear me, being that stands before me:
Hear me, thou that wouldst die:
I would sooner see the eternal stars perish
than have thee die in my arms!

First, German opera and film star Rudolf Schock:

Next, Canadian tenor Paul Frey:

And finally, Seattle favorite Ben Heppner:

Now, vote!