Seattle Opera is reviving its 2004 production of “Ariadne auf Naxos,” an innovative work that combines two opera-plot favorites into one package: serious characters from classic myths, and jesters from commedia dell’arte.
Opera has found inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman mythology since this musical-theater art form was in its 17th-century infancy.
And many operas have incorporated the slapstick characters of Italy’s commedia dell’arte school of stage comedy.
In older classics, you get basically one or the other: searing tragedy or lighthearted buffoonery. But “Ariadne auf Naxos,” which Seattle Opera is presenting in a revived 2004 production, blends yin and yang in a way that broke new ground a century ago.
‘Ariadne auf Naxos’
By Richard Strauss. Lawrence Renes, conductor, and Chris Alexander, director, Saturday, May 2-Saturday, May 16, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; tickets from $25 (206-389-7676 or seattleopera.org).
“It’s one of those operas that has an entry point for a huge range of audience,” observed Seattle Opera general director Aidan Lang, who has twice directed the work himself. (Chris Alexander has staged the version that runs at McCaw Hall May 2 through May 16. The gold cast includes Christiane Libor, Kate Lindsey, Sarah Coburn and Issachah Savage.)
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In his crisp British accent, Lang described the work as “hugely entertaining, which isn’t a bad starting point, is it? At the same time, it’s a very considered view of how we all run our lives. By fusing serious themes with broad comedy, what you actually get is a more complex look at human interaction, and a wiser view of humanity.”
The genre blending in “Ariadne” wasn’t easy for composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal to balance. They’d already successfully collaborated on “Elektra” and “Der Rosenkavalier” when Hofmannsthal devised a joint project for a short opera with chamber orchestra that would feature both “heroic mythological figures in 18th-century costume” and archetypal commedia characters. The “buffo” (comic) personae would be “interwoven with the heroic.”
This “trifle” was initially performed in tandem with Molière’s commedia-influenced 17th-century satire of French manners, “The Bourgeois Gentleman.”
In the mini-opera, Molière’s title character hosted a party where a troupe of Italian comedians entertained, and the ancient myth of Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus but rescued by a new beloved, the god Bacchus, was also performed. The Strauss score fused lighter Mozartian motifs with heavier Wagnerian ones.
But a confused and hostile crowd hissed the opening-night performance. Though Shakespeare long before tucked a play-within-a-play into “Hamlet,” an opera-within-a-play didn’t thrill 1912 Vienna.
As Strauss put it, “The playgoing public had no wish to listen to an opera, and vice versa.”
Lang suggests Hofmannsthal was simply before his time conceptually. “He was a deep thinker. And putting on stage deep thought disguised or behind simple artifice was his greatest strength.”
The frustrated librettist explained in a letter, “What [‘Ariadne’] was about is one of the straightforward and stupendous problems of poetic work: whether to hold fast to that which is lost, to cling to it even in death — or to live, live on, get over it, to transform oneself …”
Determined to retool the piece into a hit, he and Strauss detached “Ariadne” from the Molière play and spent time over several years revising it. The setting changed from Paris to Vienna. And the revised one-act opera began with a prologue: a character called The Composer has been commissioned by a wealthy art lover to create an opera based on the myth of Ariadne, which will be debuted at a posh dinner party to impress the patron’s society friends.
But when The Composer arrives at the soiree, he learns that a comedy troupe has been engaged to follow his opera with a boisterous skit about the fickle Zerbinetta and her four lovers.
The Composer (a pants role, for a female singer), is outraged by this “dumbing down” of his art. And he’s near-apoplectic when told by a major-domo that both entertainments must be merged to save time.
The show does go on, with The Soprano movingly singing the role of Ariadne. Zerbinetta and company provide comic relief, and Bacchus appears to mend Ariadne’s broken heart — with a parallel romance offstage.
Though the revised “Ariadne” still wasn’t a roaring success in the Vienna premiere in 1916, it is frequently performed today. In retrospect, the piece can be seen as a bridge between 19th- and 20th-century opera, and a harbinger of our own postmodern artistic era — in which genres, epochs, “high” and “low” culture often freely mingle.
“Ariadne auf Naxos” is often updated these days because, suggests Lang, “it translocates perfectly. Our production is still set at a Seattle party, but we’ve made some costume changes. And we have, virtually, an entirely new cast.”
One thing hasn’t changed much: the at-times strained dealings between posh arts patrons and artists they favor. Lang recalls the time his singer wife was summoned to perform for the Lord Mayor of London, with Prince Charles in attendance.
Lang “came along for the dinner,” he says. “The major-domo type, I guessed a former army man, told us the show had to be 15 minutes exactly — not a minute more. It was straight out of ‘Ariadne.’ ”