Long story short: A rich man has commissioned a tragic opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos,” to be performed at his party. He has also hired a commedia dell’arte troupe. At the last minute, he decides the program is too long and the two performances must be merged. Hijinks ensue.
Okay, slightly longer. I like a play-within-a-play almost as much as Shakespeare did. It’s a self-reflective piece, an opera about opera, and I can no more resist an ouroboros than any other metalhead. In order to represent the wide range of character types in the two different performances, Ariadne auf Naxos becomes a bit of an intra-opera mashup itself. In fact, Ariadne auf Naxos is what I think of as a “kitchen sink” production. It has a little bit of everything, and while that’s distracting for some people, and I admit cohesion can be a challenge, the kitchen sink approach is my catnip.
The entire first act of this two-act opera is called a Prologue, and takes place backstage before the performance. We meet the idealistic young opera composer, his music teacher, and the diva who will sing Ariadne. We meet the commercially successful comedienne Zerbinetta, her dance instructor, and her troupe of clowns. And we meet the rich man’s butler, whose role is spoken instead of sung, just to show how little his character cares about art. To him, the most important aspect of the performance is the fireworks schedule for nine o’clock.
The tone-deaf butler delivers the news that the two performances must be merged, and everyone reacts according to character. The highbrow character of the Composer provides most of the act’s comedy with his melodramatic pronouncements while everyone else tries to make the changes that will ensure they all get paid. Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey was one of my favorite things about Tales of Hoffmann in the breeches role of Niclausse, and she provides my favorite musical moments as the Composer in Ariadne, too. Not only is she one of my favorite voices, hitting the high notes as well as the mezzo-low, but she is every bit as impressive an actress as a singer.
The actual mashup resulting from the host’s edict comprises the entire second act. Here we see dueling sopranos. Lyric soprano Christiane Libor’s Diva/Ariadne isn’t given much to work with, but I love the lyric style of singing, and I did get a kick out of dramatic eye-rolling and shooing the comedians off the stage. The melodramatic voice of The Composer was recognizable in Ariadne’s lines, but that might have been taking things too far; in truth, the Composer’s devotion to the purity of art works better as comedy. Although coloratura is not my favorite style, Sarah Coburn’s Zerbinetta was written as a scene stealer with the longest, most elaborate aria of the opera, beautifully delivered.
As a reviewer, I try to be transparent in my biases. So you won’t be surprised that even though The Tenor/Bacchus’ appearance late in the second act is supposed to be a treat (and Issachah Savage is quite good) I was more drawn to the Harlekin’s cheery song (sung by barihunk Andrew Garland). That the opera-character Echo seemed to prefer the Harlekin too was equal parts humor and echo (pardon) of the greater high/low romance between the Composer and Zerbinetta.
Because of course Ariadne’s heartsick will be soothed by the confused young god Bacchus (an intentional metaphor for getting drunk after a breakup?) under the spotlight in the inner opera. But the point of the greater opera Ariadne auf Naxos is that the high art Composer and the low art Zerbinetta making out in the corner is the real spark that ignites the fireworks at the end of the rich man’s party.