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Ariadne auf Naxos at the Seattle Opera

Thanks to my neighbor, Elonna, who has been volunteering at the Seattle Opera this year and then offering me a ticket to the dress rehearsals of the operas, I got to see Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos on Tuesday. (This was after a brain-meltingly brutal day at work when I had to work a little later than usual, and I had put the opera outing on the wrong day on my calendar, so when she innocently texted to ask if I'd be ready to go by 6:20, I was thrown into a panic. A pre-opera martini was good medicine.) The only Strauss opera I had previous seen and heard (on DVD and CD) was Salome. The only thing I "knew" about Ariadne was that it was a comedy. But as I said to Elonna on the way to the opera house, my memory of the Ariadne mythos was that after she helped Theseus find his way out of the labyrinth of the minotaur, he, in true Greek hero fashion, dumped her. It was hard to imagine how the story could be fashioned into a comedy.

Ariadne Deserted on the Isle of Naxos by Hans Schuler.jpg
Ariadne Deserted on the Isle of Naxos sculpted by Hans Schuler

Well, it turns out to be quite a bit more complicated than that, and the opera is one of the odder and more delightful works I've seen yet. It feels quite post-modern in its way, and that may be partly a reflection of how it came to its present form. It starts with a Prologue set in the manor of a wealthy patron who has hired musicians to entertain his dinner guests that evening. The Composer (a male character played by a female singer) has written a tragic opera about Ariadne. He is horrified to discover that the wealthy patron has also hired a commedia dell'arte troupe, lead by the coquettish singer Zerbinetta, to perform some comic numbers before (or after, I can't remember) the opera. Much comedy ensues around this clash of highbrow vs lowbrow, culminating in the wealthy patron announcing that because dinner has run late, the opera and the commedia dell'arte act need to be combined. Eventually the Composer and Zerbinetta confront each other, and the Composer is seduced in a marvelous soprano duet. Nonetheless, he's left in a miserable mood at the thought of his profound musical poetry being polluted by clowns.

After an intermission we get the combined performance of the opera and commedia del arte, with the wealthy patron and his guests watching from tables at the sides of the stage. We begin with Ariadne waking up on Naxos and lamenting Theseus' cruelty in a Wagnerian aria. She longs for death. The clowns and Zerbinetta take the stage and try to cheer her up, telling her that she'll find another man and forget the jerk, Theseus. Ariadne is not buying it, and she leaves the stage. Zerbinetta sings a remarkably acrobatic song about her fickle heart and short memory for the many men who have passed through her life, and this is played out as a charade in which the four clowns woo her. They all leave, and Ariadne returns with her longing for death to take her in his arms. Bacchus arrives on the island, and due to a confusion of identities (she thinks he's Hermes coming to take her to Hades, and he thinks she's Circe, who has just given him a magic potion), they fall in love. Thus the advice of the clowns has inadvertently been followed, and Zerbinetta and the Composer watch from the audience to the side of the stage, holding hands.

Ariadne auf Naxos.jpg
Harlequin and Zerbinetta console an inconsolable Ariadne

I was completely wowed by the way Strauss was able to pull off the unlikely combination of tragic romance and romantic comedy. The comedy is laugh out loud funny and goofy, and the serious love story is soaringly, poetically beautiful. The way that both strands weave with the other is deft and seamless. The performers were astoundingly good, and the music they were given to sing was gorgeous, with some very tricky parts for Zerbinetta in particular. (On a first pass, I far prefer this music to that of Salome.) The sets were also pretty much perfect, and I loved how the serious characters in the opera-within-the-opera wore 18th century costumes, giving the production a feeling of mixed eras as well as mixed genres and musical styles. Really, it's just a fantastic production all around, and I highly recommend it.

Regarding how the opera arrived at its odd structure, it was originally commissioned by the famous German theater director Max Reinhardt, who was putting on a new production of Moliere's The Bourgeois Gentleman, which is about a pretentious nouveau riche who is trying to convince everyone that he's sophisticated. Strauss and his librettist, Hofmannsthal, were to provide a short opera that would exhibit this man's questionable taste. This superproduction failed to enchant audiences, so Strauss and Hofmannsthal created the Prologue to replace the Moliere play as an explanation for the opera. What results is something like the backstage musicals that Hollywood has always been so fond of. Yes, kids, it's the Singin' in the Rain of opera!

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