BWW Review: ARIADNE ON NAXOS Balances Wondrously Between Classic Beauty and Parody
In 1912 Richard Strauss presented to the world a most curious new opera: Ariadne auf Naxos. It combines the staid and grandiose beauty of the Classical Tragic Opera with the comic antics of a Commedia troupe. Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened a simply perfect production of this work. It's entire sensibility-the staging, the costumes, the sets, lights, and especially the acting style-express a profound empathy with Strauss's subtle blend of classicism and parody. Stage director Sean Curran and his designers-James Schuette (sets), Amanda Seymour (costumes) and Christopher Akerlind (lighting)-deserve enormous praise for so sensitively capturing the odd heart of this beautiful opera. (Sung in English, OTSL presents it as Ariadne on Naxos.)
So: Classic and Commedia? What's that all about? The grand classic style had had its heyeday in the eighteenth century, and Commedia dell'Arte flourished even earlier. Now Strauss is most definitely a modern composer-he died in 1949, and his works caused great controversy in his time. His Salome (1909) was damned by critics as "neurotic," "over-sensual," "decadent." (The Opera Theatre of St. Louis production of Salome seven years ago deliciously validated all those adjectives!) But Strauss had himself composed operas on the classic Greek themes: Elektra (1909) was the first in his long and productive collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, a major Austrian poet and playwright. Strauss, like Wagner, sought to make the play and the music one.
Ariadne on Naxos is an opera-within-an-opera. Director Sean Curran has very successfully moved the story from the 18th century to the late 19th. An enormously rich nobleman has hired two companies to provide entertainment at a grand banquet: First an opera company will perform Ariadne on Naxos, a new work by a very young composer who is desperate for his first chance at glory; then will come the comedic relief of a second company of players. But the dinner has been delayed and the fireworks must be set off at the prescribed time. So the performers are given a command: Both companies must perform simultaneously. The diva and the composer are outraged, but the leader of the comedy troupe says, "Hey, improv is our schtick! No problem!"
First we see the preparations. We meet the ego-blown classic Wagnerian soprano and tenor; the merry and irreverent comedy troupe: Zerbinetta, Harlequin, Truffaldino, Brighella, Scaramuccio and their cocky dancing master. We meet the adorable young composer. The composer is a "trousers role"-a male role sung by a woman. In this role Cecelia Hall just trampled on my heart. She is so young, so earnest, so innocent, so ardent! She is so dedicated to her art. Slender, long-limbed, graceful in a convincingly boyish way-and with a superb clear sweet voice-she is perfect!
As the inner opera begins we see Ariadne abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the isle of Naxos. In glorious (but eventually rather tedious) repetition she bemoans her misery. The comedy troupe arrive and set out to raise her spirits-they sing, they plead, they comfort, they dance (in a sort of clownish conga line)-but to no avail. Eventually the young god Bacchus arrives and he and Ariadne bond romantically.