Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is not a typical love story or drama. In it, an ignorant patron commissions a serious opera and a comical farce to be performed one after the other at a private party, but at the last minute he demands that they be played simultaneously to make time for a fireworks display. Like the final opera of Seattle Opera’s 2013-2014 season, Tales of Hoffmann, Ariadne auf Naxos uses an an opera-within-an-opera to examine the medium itself, and Strauss is focused on the divide between high- and low-brow art. This remains a contentious subject, but it was particularly heated in his time.
In the twenty-first century, we are inundated with mash-ups of old and new, patrician and pop. Classics are reworked with dubstep or dance music underpinnings, and recent groups such as Postmodern Jukebox have put an old-timey spin on contemporary pop favorites. Ariadne‘s premise is thus not so startling to us as it was to audiences when it premiered. The division between two categorical opposites, the opera seria and opera buffa—serious and comic operas, respectively—dates back to at least the 1600s. (It could be argued that the roots of these forms extend further into the past, to the madrigals and performing troupes of troubadours.) In nineteenth-century Europe, such divisions in the arts were the subject of endless arguments. No other art form was as debated as opera, Singspielen or ‘music dramas,’ from such dead serious composers as Weber, Wagner and, of course, Strauss.
Ariadne was written at the start of the twentieth century, after the masterworks of the Romantic era, such as Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Ring cycle. The first act shows the backstage drama as performers from two sides of the cultural divide prepare, then learn that they must share the stage. The second act is their performance at the party: the serious opera Ariadne and burlesque all at once. Strauss pokes fun at Romantic-era tropes while also celebrating them with the serious opera, which is juxtaposed with the lighter, colloquial and farcical antics of the starlet Zerbinetta and her troupe. However, one must not overlook that Strauss is so effective in this because he has such mastery of that Romantic German operatic mode. He is, in effect, lampooning himself to a point.
In the second act, Ariadne and her water nymphs (a la Wagner’s Das Rheingold) have limited time to get their message and angst across, and while audience members are aware that this is done in jest in the meta “play-within-a-play” treatment, it is impossible to not be moved by the beauty of these lyrical admissions of pain, self-doubt and Weltschmerz. Zerbinetta’s big moment, the “Grossmächtige Prinzessin” aria, may establish empathy between the two aesthetic worlds (boiling down to “we’re all just lost souls looking for love”) but does not come close to the climactic moments of Ariadne and Bacchus’s abbreviated love plot, complete with Tristan-ian cadences in the strings. It is extraordinary that Strauss can transport the audience to such operatic heights in short snippets of time, despite clearly stating the superficiality of the situation.
Seattle Opera’s production does a splendid job of overlaying these two worlds, hitting all the right notes for the comedic aspects and plucking heart strings in the more serious sections. The costuming by Cynthia Savage masterfully depicts the aesthetic, class and philosophical divides between the various characters, while the stage design creates a contemporary setting, complete with luxurious glass installations and enormous pieces of modern art adorning the walls. These touches don’t just bring the plot into our own time, but into a place that feels recognizably true to the Pacific Northwest.
The cast of Ariadne are splendid: the neurotic composer, played by Kate Lindsey and the two stars of the serious opera, the prima donna Ariadne (Christiane Libor) and Bacchus (Issachah Savage) bring Romantic drama, while the coquettish Zerbinetta, played with great aplomb by Sarah Coburn, provides a buoyant balance for all this solemnity, supported by a troupe of irreverent entertainers. The musical quality is steered to epic heights by conductor Lawrence Renes in one of the best performances of Seattle’s Opera’s 2014-2015 season.
With this much self-effacing humor, both in the original opera and this particular production’s self-aware references to Seattle culture, it is easy to understand that we are not intended to take the opera or ourselves too seriously. Opera and classical music culture in the twenty-first century can embrace both the Ariadne and the Zerbinetta, or so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, and these could even potentially exist harmoniously.
This message still seemed to be lost on some patrons. In a particularly poignant scene upon exiting McCaw Hall, my opera date and I spotted a little girl, dressed to the nines in a beautiful ball gown, leaving with her father. The sheer joy in her demeanor, entranced by the magic and wonder of a night at the opera, caused me to lean over and sing, very softly, Edward Kleban’s touching words from the music A Chorus Line: “And everything was beautiful at the ballet.” A very serious patron summarily shushed us. This was clearly not the place nor time for such ‘frivolous’, ‘low’ art…