Wolf Trap Opera’s Ariadne auf Naxos on Saturday left me with two primary impressions: Strauss’ music is exceptional and WTO’s young performers are terrific. The opera bursts onto the stage with raucous vaudevillian humor worthy of the Marx brothers and ends with a fade to true love worthy of Frank Capra. Kudos to composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannstahl for allowing true love to develop amid a clash of two cultures without anyone dying from swordplay or committing suicide and to the WTO players and creative team for bringing such a funny and charming story so compellingly to life.
Ariadne auf Naxos is one of a string of opera hits by the Strauss/Hofmannstahl team, but the opera has a convoluted history. It was originally intended to be an innovative combination of a play by Hofmannsthal and an opera by Strauss, now known as Ariadne I (1912). Ariadne I became cumbersome and drawn-out (play and opera combined at about 6 hours), and expensive to produce, requiring two separate troupes of performers. Hofmannsthal went back to the drawing board, wrote a Prologue in which the characters set the stage for the Opera that follows. Strauss made the needed changes to the music, and Ariadne II (1916) is what is most often performed today, coming in at a little over two hours. That sounds easier than it was. There was considerable tugging back and forth between the two, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, though played out very politely: At one point, Strauss wrote Hofmannsthal to the effect that the libretto was wonderful, but if he couldn’t understand it what hope might there be for the average fan. Fortunately, they worked it out.
l to r: Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne, Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, and Lindsay Kate Brown as Composer. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
The opera begins on a set that is the backstage with an opening onto the performance hall, which is being used for dinner and music. We meet the characters by their titles, not their names, Composer, Tenor, Prima Donna, etc. The Major-Domo explains to the Music Master that the opera is to be followed by a commedia dell’arte performance of “Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers”, and then fireworks 9 pm sharp. The Music Master and Composer are highly upset at this juxtaposition of this low art with their high art. The comedy players believe they will bring blessed relief to a bored audience. It gets worse – the Major-Domo returns to state the opera and the play must be performed together to make certain that they can start the fireworks on time. Cuts must be made; egos must be attended to. Meanwhile, the irate Composer finds himself warming to Zerbinetta who herself becomes enchanted by the Composer’s commitment to presenting his vision of true love; her view is that if God wanted women to be faithful to one man, he would not have produced them in so many varieties. Next, the backstage set has become the performing stage with small off-stage views on both the right and left. The Opera mashup begins, interweaving the stories of Ariadne and Zerbinetta to comedic and heartwarming effect. Director Tara Faircloth did an excellent job in presenting the story, especially in choreographing the moves of a large number of players on a small stage and bringing each character to life. The set designs by Laura Fine Hawkes and the costumes by Rooth Varland are marvelous, further drawing us into the drama.
The orchestra is on stage behind the set for this performance to allow all the musicians, a chamber orchestra of thirty-something players, to fit in one spot. The music caught my attention right away because it has to move back and forth between the styles of opera seria and commedia dell’arte, as it helps flesh out each of the characters. It also switches between small groupings of instruments for characterizations and the entire ensemble that sounds full and rich. Whether Wagnerian in nature or comedic in nature, Strauss’ music is both pleasing and fitting, and always his own. Conductor Emily Senturia and the Wolf Trap Orchestra gave a marvelous performance, especially considering that only tv screens afforded views of the conductor to the singers, and Ms. Senturia had to fly blind without a view of the singers.
My son expressed the opinion that the Opera section of Ariadne was a parody of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Once he said that I began to see parallels myself – Ariadne believes her depression over lost love could only be assuaged by death, ala Isolde, and when Bacchus arrived causing her transformation and salvation, the horns sounded very Siegfried-leitmotif-like. Moreover, the opera within the opera is heroic in style and Strauss was a fan of Wagner’s music; might this be a tip of the hat to Wagner?
Ariadne auf Naxos provides WTO the opportunity to use 17, by my count, of its Filene and Studio Artists. The professionalism of this early-career crew is impressive; opening night went off without an apparent hitch. The stand-out opportunities in Ariadne are the roles of Ariadne and Zerbinetta played in WTO’s production by soprano Alexandria Shiner and soprano Alexandra Nowakowski. Both of these two WTO Filene Artists delivered stand out performances. Ms. Shiner as Ariadne (Isolde?) sang with such power and compelling gravitas that I began to buy into the opera’s opera much as Zerbinetta did. Ms. Nowakowski as Zerbinetta proved to be both a talented singer and a delightful actress. Her trills and roulades were used effectively, and she exuded a natural charm, nailing the coquettish nature of the role completely. Both sopranos received enthusiastic rounds of applause. Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Kate Brown also delivered a strong performance; her vibrant, lovely voice was thoroughly engaging in a pants role as the Composer.
left photo: (top row L-R) - Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade and Meagan Rao as Najade. (front row L-R): Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. right photo: Ian Koziara as Bacchus and Alexandria Shiner as Ariadne. Photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.
There were many fine supporting performances, and I will mention a few. Baritone Conor McDonald who played the speaking-only role as Major-Domo was perfect in appearance and in spewing his messages with a ringing German accent. The operatic Dyads – soprano Meagan Rao as Najade, mezzo-soprano Anastasiia Sidorova as Dryade, and soprano Ashley Marie Robillard as Echo – had a beautiful sound together and a deft comic touch that reminded me of the Rhine Maidens (Wagner again). In a performance that might be too easily brushed aside in the midst of so much action, tenor Ian Koziara was excellent, looking nothing like Ian Koziara in sight or sound; he was dressed and moved about for comedic effect and gave us a heroic heldentenor that was certainly respectable. Fully engaging, singing and acting performances were also given by baritone Joshua Conyers as Music Master, bass Jeremy Harr as Lackey, and tenor Ian McEuen as Dancing Master.
Ariadne can be enjoyed just for its take down of high art pretensions by commedia dell’arte styled comic antics; yet, I felt I went home having had an experience far richer than just having a few laughs. Somehow an opening to the transformative power of love had been tapped. Opera can do that, and Wolf Trap Opera and it’s young ensemble consistently delivers on opera’s promise.
The Fan Experience: There two more opportunities to see Ariadne, July 24 and 27; tickets can be found at this link. The opera is in German with English supertitles. Also recommended is the informative pre-opera talk by pianist Joseph Li that begins in The Barns one hour prior to the performance.
I have written many times about the benefits of opera in The Barns – a cozy venue for opera putting the singers and audience close together, casual dress and atmosphere, food and refreshments available, drinks can be taken to your seat, air-conditioning, free parking, and easy in/easy out access. There are seats on the main floor that do not allow viewing of the supertitles and a few in the balcony where structure posts can split your view; if this is the first time to attend opera there, I’d advise talking with the box office in selecting your tickets.