The Opera in an Opera Overcomes Illnesses

This is the season of colds. And illness has certainly taken a toll at the Metropolitan Opera this winter, as it did on Thursday night for the first performance of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” in a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s slightly surreal 1994 production.

The Canadian tenor Lance Ryan, who has sung Wagner’s Siegfried to acclaim, was to have made his much anticipated Met debut as Bacchus. But he was sick and had to withdraw. The American tenor Michael Hendrick, an experienced Bacchus, took over.

As it turned out, Mr. Hendrick was grappling with a cold as well. He went on, but he requested the audience’s understanding, a Met spokesman announced from the stage.

Bacchus is a relatively short yet notoriously punishing heldentenor role. Clearly struggling, Mr. Hendrick dropped some phrases and skipped some top notes. Still, the basic components of his burly voice came through, and he survived the big final duet with Ariadne.

Fortunately, the Swedish soprano Nina Stemme sang the title role as scheduled and sounded as healthy as could be. I have admired Ms. Stemme since hearing her lustrous and intense performance as Wagner’s Isolde at Bayreuth in 2006. She was in excellent voice here, singing with earthy colorings, ample power and vivid character.

In this opera-within-an-opera the lead role is actually an unnamed prima donna, whom we meet in the Prologue, backstage at the private theater of the wealthiest man in Vienna, who is giving a party. The guests will be entertained with the premiere of a tragic opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” and a song-and-dance show from a troupe of comedic players. To save time, however, the unseen host orders that the opera and the comedy be performed simultaneously.

Balancing the elements of farce, social commentary and idealized love in “Ariadne auf Naxos” is a challenge. Despite Ms. Stemme’s compelling singing and the radiant, sensitive playing the conductor Kirill Petrenko drew from the Met Orchestra, the overall performance seemed tentative well before the crucial final scene, when the ailing Mr. Hendrick arrived as Bacchus to rescue Ariadne from her broken-hearted isolation.

In the Prologue the British mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly was the Composer, an impassioned young man who takes himself and his art so very seriously. Ms. Connolly, an admirable singer of Handel and Mozart, has been branching into vocally heavier repertory. She brought rich tone and arching lyricism to her performance and got at the essence of this character: a harried, driven and fatalistic young man.

Yet her voice seemed light for the role. In big phrases, she made a sizable sound, but not without audible effort.

The Korean soprano Kathleen Kim was a sweet, perky and petite Zerbinetta, the star of the comedy troupe. She dispatched the coloratura runs and roulades in Zerbinetta’s extravagantly showy aria with ease. Still, she came across as vocally cautious and dramatically timid.

The Austrian baritone Markus Werba, in his Met debut, was a charming, acrobatic Harlequin.

But Ms. Stemme’s performance is the news. And the overall performance may gain confidence once a healthy tenor is in place to sing Bacchus.

“Ariadne auf Naxos” runs through Feb. 20 at the Metropolitan Opera House; (212) 362-6000;

Anthony TommasiniThe New York Times