| Civic Opera House, Chicago, IL
Ariadne auf Naxos
Lyric Opera of Chicago
|Civic Opera House, Chicago, IL, Chicago, IL60606, United States|
Sunday 11-Dec-11 02:00pm
The gist of Ariadne auf Naxos, Richard Strauss’ opera-within-an-opera, is this: a demanding patron insists on having his entertainment for a given evening – a burlesque act and an opera – combined into one work, greatly upsetting the archetypal “serious artist” composer of the opera. Already Strauss’ depiction onstage of a classical composer asks certain questions of the integrity of art, its place in society, and so forth. But when we realize how precisely Ariadne mirrors the story of its own genesis it becomes much clearer that, far from being a vacuous farce, this is a profound meditation on the meaning of art and the complexity of human emotion. The Lyric Opera of Chicago gave precedence to the humor and neo-Hellenistic qualities of Ariadne that make it a truly great (if light-sounding) opera, rather than a vehicle for easy-listening and virtuoso diva display.
As it was originally intended, Ariadne auf Naxos was to be performed as a short work directly following the performance of a Molière play. This, however, proved to be ill-conceived, and Strauss turned this very situation into the Prologue (the first of two acts; the second is the Opera) of the revised version of Ariadne. The Composer (a “pants” role, sung by vibrant mezzo-soprano Alice Coote) is distraught at the very idea of his work sharing an evening with a troupe of commedia dell’arte players, let alone that the performances occur simultaneously. Strauss, by all accounts totally contented with simple domestic pleasures, was certainly more amenable in real life to altering his work than this, and uses his comically serious or flippant characters to make a statement about the meaning of happiness.
Central to the humor is a constant sense of forward propulsion, keeping the dialogue between characters as snappy and absurd as possible. Sir Andrew Davis led the orchestra in a nimble reading that followed and supported the singers masterfully throughout Strauss’ tricky score. To the same effect of exaggerating the character types, the two Greek choruses were equally strong: Naiad, Dryad and Echo (Nili Riemer, Jamie Barton and Kiri Deonarine) were sung with appropriately cheesy sentimentality; and Harlekin, Brighella, Truffaldino and Scaramuccio (Matthew Worth, René Barbera, Wilbur Pauley and James Kryshak) were full of clownish antics, as well as wonderful singing. While these latter four male roles are the only ones who are intentionally funny, it is the brilliance of Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmansthal that they are in fact more believable and realistic than the self-serious leads, namely the Prima Donna/Ariadne, the Tenor/Bacchus, and the Composer.
The shallowest character, whose impact on the sensibilities of those around her is greatest, is Zerbinetta. It is her appeal to Ariadne’s femininity and desire to be loved that makes the title character turn from thoughts of suicide to new romance, as it was her powers of seduction in the Prologue which convinced the Composer – albeit momentarily – to accept the program change. Anna Christy was a perfect fit for the bubbly coloratura role, at once vapid and cunning. Her voice seemed to smile with every note, giving intangible glory to Strauss’ soprano lines (the voice part for which he favored writing throughout his career). “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, the central ten-minute aria of the whole work, was astonishing.
The other leads – Ms. Coote as the Composer, Brandon Jovanovich as the Tenor/Bacchus, and Amber Wagner as the Prima Donna/Ariadne – were excellent as well, making musical choices that effectively supported their extreme character types. The serious-minded Bacchus and Ariadne were rendered extremely so, thanks in part due to Mr. Jovanovich’s and Ms. Wagner’s glacial pacing of certain passages. It worked perfectly, pushing their roles just to the point of too-droll-to-stand before comedy rescued the situation. Both sang with full, Romantic-operatic voices and with endless legato phrases. Ms. Coote was vocally explosive and metrically reserved, eschewing temporal indulgence in favor of dynamic contrast and over-earnest character portrayal. She certainly could have held the audience momentarily hostage – her high B-flat at the end of the aria “Sein wir wieder gut…” seemed effortless – but served the greater good by emphasizing other aspects than technical skill.
In addition to its accessibility, Ariadne auf Naxos is particularly valuable today because it perfectly encapsulates the situation of Western art music in contemporary society. Musicians and music lovers are faced with a changing world, as is the Composer in the Prologue, and as was Strauss in 1913. With a healthy perspective and good humor, compromises may be made to keep the art form viable, and if Ariadne may serve as an example, the results may still be extraordinary.