Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at Lyric Opera, 2011-2012

On average Chicago Lyric Opera produces Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal’s delightful 1912 opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, their third collaboration, once every 15 years. The last time was in 1998-1999. IMO that’s not nearly frequently enough.

I think that its scarcity in Lyric’s schedule is understandable. It’s musically and dramatically difficult and its post-Wagnerian “continuous melody” style does not exactly have you leaving the theater humming the tunes. Importantly in an Italian opera town in which “opera” is largely defined as Verdi and Puccini, it’s a 20th century German opera.

However, it also has much to recommend it. Relatively small orchestra (36 pieces), no chorus, just two sets, two and a half hours long. That’s the sort of opera that could (rather like La Boheme) be tossed into an ambitious schedule.

I first heard Ariadne auf Naxos when Lyric produced it as part of the 1998-1999 season. Although I had a subscription then for some reason or other I did not hear the 1981 production. I fell in love with it when I first heard it. The music is beautiful and, at least in my opinion, it is dramatically and thematically profound.

The work is an opera buffa enclosed in an opera seria enclosed in a satire of opera. It both lampoons and exalts opera, a difficult accomplishment and one in which the work only partially succeeds. It has, I think, larger themes as well.

Ariadne is just full of frustrated plans. The Composer has his plan. The Music Master and Dance Master have their plans. The opera performers and the commedia dell’arte troop have their plans. All of these plans are frustrated by the only plan that matters, the plan of Der Gnädige Herr, the Gracious Master, the sponsor of the work.

His guests will have their dinners, be entertained after dinner, and witness a concluding fireworks display. The plans of Composer, Music and Dance Masters, and performers notwithstanding, following the Prologue in which we are introduced to these characters and the situation and the Opera in which opera seria and opera buffa are performed simultaneously, the fireworks display goes off right on schedule, concluding the evening. Not coincidentally I am sure, this all takes place within the Three Unities of French classical drama—unity of plot, unity of place, and unity of time.

I have no idea what von Hoffmannsthal’s beliefs were but to my mind this is life. The opera seria and opera buffa, tragedy and comedy, are performed at the same time, they conclude on schedule with a fireworks display, and the only plan that matters is that of Der Gnädige Herr.

I think the work itself is flawed. The first act, The Prologue, is much more successful than the second, The Opera. In the Prologue The Composer is both mocked and honored and last night’s Composer, sung and acted flawlessly by Alice Coote, successfully moved us both to laughter and tears.

I thought the performers in The Opera, like the second act itself, were somewhat less successful. I thought that all were competent but the flighty Zerbinetta (Anna Christy) cheated on her high notes, the Prima Donna/Ariadne (Amber Wagner) was not quite up to the grandness of her roles, and I thought the Tenor/Bacchus was shouting at least part of the time. Little wonder that by the end of opera, in which he dominates, he certainly appeared to begin to flag.

Our Bacchus last night, Brandon Jovanovich, certainly possesses a strong Wagnerian tenor voice and presents a striking figure on stage.

The season so far: The Tales of Hoffman, Ariadne aux Naxos, and, a distant third, Lucia di Lammermoor.

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