Review: Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos at Wolf Trap Opera
In his usually delightful, frequently insightful book A Night at the Opera, Sir Denis Forman writes “I would never advise anyone not to go to any opera but I would not encourage any but the very Strauss-prone to go to Ariadne. It’s a piece that’s much better heard than seen.” He then goes on to give it a rating of “gamma,” the lowest available in his ranking scheme.
By comparison, in the same book Forman gives alphas to Strauss’ Elektra, Rosenkavalier, and Salome, as he does to most of the operas we know and love. Some, like L’Elisr D’Amore, Le nozze di Figaro, Gianni Schicchi, Tosca, and Meistersinger even merit an “alpha-plus.” (Meistersinger? Really, Denis? And yet you give Tannhauser a “beta”? What the hell is wrong with you?) Even schlocky dreck like Werther, La Gioconda, and Die Fledermaus merit betas. Ariadne’s peers in the gamma world are near-complete losers like Lakmé and Suor Angelica. It’s just not right.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems with Ariadne auf Naxos - it is certainly a notch below the two operas Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal came up with before it (Elektra and Rosenkavalier), and it more or less holds its own against the different challenges of the operas which followed it, Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), and Arabella (1933).
However, I wonder if Forman (and other critics) would remain so dismissive of Ariadne had he encountered a production of it as satisfying as the one currently on offer by Wolf Trap Opera.
Featuring a very talented cast led by two stand-out performances (Alexandria Shiner’s Ariadne and Alexandra Nowakowski’s Zerbinetta), smart and creatively engaged direction by Tara Faircloth, and a supportive conductor in the form of Emily Senturia, the production takes Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s half-baked ideas of the opera-within-an-opera structure and cooks them into two-course meal made in a camp kitchen that seems like it’s being run by Greg Daniels and Flight of the Conchords. And for the most part it works surprisingly well.
The gist of the complaints against Ariadne are due to its stupid plot structure, which, if one is watching the opera cold, would make for a nearly incoherent experience. This situation no doubt arose from Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s own confusion about what they were creating and why (the moral of this story, once again people, is do a bit of reading before going to an opera - it pays off).
The plot is basically this: in the first act, known as The Prologue, a big party is underway at a very rich person’s house. We never know who the rich person is, because they have a Major-Domo running everything, including the entertainment schedule, which for this party calls for a serious opera, followed by a comedic operetta, to be followed by fireworks at nine pm. Sharp. However, that’s not going to work - dinner is dragging on and it’s already 7:00 pm. By the way, the opera people are not at all happy about being the opening act for the comedians. The comedians don’t really care much either way, as long as they get paid. The Major-Domo re-enters and says “Change of plans! To save time and make sure the fireworks stay on schedule, both pieces will now be performed simultaneously- so work it out, good luck, and be done by nine!” There are snipes, there are arguments, there is drama, and a bit of seduction that sets everything in order. Cuts get made, anxiety grows, but the show must go on.
Act two is The Opera, now a mash-up of “Fickle Zerbinetta and Her Four Lovers” and “Ariadne [miserable and lonely on Naxos].” And like Waiting for Guffman’s “Red, White and Blaine,” what should be an ordeal for the audience turns out to be laugh out loud funny, by turns delightful, and eventually, surprisingly moving. Only in this case it’s really the quality of the performances that moves us, coupled with Strauss’ marvelous music.
Equally important, at least in this case, is a lot of great work by director Faircloth and the cast, who take every opportunity to fill the libretto’s numerous gaps with clever bits keeping the audience engaged.
In the gorgeous Wolf Trap Opera season program there’s a section providing “where are they now?” stats on participants after leaving the summer program. The numbers are impressive, and there are at least three performers in this production destined to increase them: Shiner, Nowakowski, and Ian Koziara, who sings the role of Bacchus in the second act. All are Filene Artists, which represent the top 3.3% of singers who applied for this year’s roster. The individual talents of this group also influence the repertoire choices for the season.
Alexandria Shiner, a soprano and former Domingo-Cafritz Artist hailing from Michigan, has a voice and presence reminiscent of Heidi Melton or Amber Wagner. Clear and powerful, her instrument seemed poised to knock down the walls of Wolf Trap’s Barns at the mere whispering of the word “Liebestod.” She can also act, her face conveying much without any sound leaving her lips. Her facial reactions to Zerbinetta and her troupe provided some of the second act’s most humorous moments. Someone please cast her in some Wagner, quickly.
It’s obvious early on soprano Alexandra Nowakowski (pictured at top as Zerbinetta) has a number of formidable gifts as a performer, but above all, the current Domingo-Cafritz Artist from Chicago has a voice and presence that seems perfectly suited to Mozart. It’s too bad WNO is doing Flute next year instead of Cosi - she’d be terrific as one of the sisters. She mines comedic gold here as Zerbinetta, winning the audience’s affection as easily as she does the Composer’s (mezzo-sporano Lindsay Kate Brown, possessing ample presence and impressive volume during their duet, “Ein Augenblick ist wenig”), and dispatched the role’s showcase set piece with control and consistently clear tone despite its many hurdles. More please.
Tenor Ian Koziara, another Chicagoan, enters the opera late in the game as Bacchus, here to save Ariadne from her life of loneliness and gloom. And frankly, why shouldn’t she be thrilled at his arrival? The handsome Koaziara’s impressive vocal power was well-matched to Shiner’s and while the libretto doesn’t render them convincing lovers, their voices certainly did. The warmth and depth of Koziara’s voice approaches baritone territory, and its development will be interesting to observe over the next decade.
Baritone Joshua Conyers made a big impression as the Music Master, wielding a capacious voice and strong stage presence. Meagan Rao (Naiad), Anastasiia Sidorova (Dryad), and Ashley Marie Robillard (Echo) provided amusing comic relief as nymphs. Conor McDonald’s turn as the Major-Domo was entertaining - he is certainly ready to emcee the Kit Kat Club. Ian McEuen did an excellent job of shinng brightly in the smaller role of the Dancing Master: working within the large cast and appearing within the ensemble, McEuen frequently became the focal point of attention with his sharp physicality and expressive stage skills.
Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos repeats Wednesday, July 24th and Saturday, July 27th. Both performances are at 7:30. More information here.
All photos by Scott Suchman for Wolf Trap.