Ariadne auf Naxos, as presented by the Santa Fe Opera this summer, is a balanced melding of what I consider the three ways opera can go: Jaunty, lively and humorous; sublime if not snoozy and drawn-out; and heart-wrenchingly poignant and eternally relatable. Perhaps the perfect choice for newbies while remaining technically astounding to satisfy connoisseurs, it offers a taste of everything opera could possibly be in one production from a varied and deft cast, not to mention a nearly flawless orchestra (conductor, James Gaffigan) that kept up with everything from movie score-style accompaniment to lush movements reminiscent of ancient melodies.
Richard Strauss' opera-within-an-opera, inspired by a Moliére play and composed with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1912, starts with the feel of musical theater. In a dingey and claustrophobic back hallway full of doors, performers and serving staff prepare for a party at the house of "the richest man in Vienna." The evening is to contain a commissioned opera by the dour and emo Composer (written for a woman dressed as a man, here sung by Amanda Majeski), followed by a cabaret by an Italian commedia dell'arte troupe led by the coquettish and beautiful Zerbinetta (Liv Redpath).
The burlesque performers roll their eyes at the way-too-serious opera stars (including Prima Donna Amanda Echalaz and Tenor Bruce Sledge)—and the opera stars are horrified by the burlesque performers, who make out in dressing rooms and change their clothes wherever they please. "They are vulgar, ordinary people who run from beauty to a place of ordinary banality," the Composer sings. Yikes!
So imagine the reaction from both parties when the head butler (Kevin Burdette, a spoken role) informs them that the master of the house wants to commence his fireworks precisely at 9 pm—there isn't time for both performances—but in order for each troupe to receive their full pay, they must both perform … simultaneously. The impossibly depressing Ariadne auf Naxos from a composer so serious and precious is to be mashed up with comedians in spats and feathered caps. "She needs companions! … On we will go to bring a smile to the story," the clowns happily sing. (Alternately: "There is only pain and suffering in this world; I have no reason to live," says the Composer. OK then.)
The 45-minute first act, sung mostly in English (the translation by Tim Albery aims to make the jokes more accessible to an American audience, and succeeds), firmly establishes the stars of this production: Majeski's Composer and Redpath's Zerbinetta. Not only are they charismatic on their own, but they find their way to each other for a romance that practically throws off visible sparks. The fantastic performances from both women could not be more different, but come together with chemistry so exhilarating, I doubt Strauss could ever have imagined its effect on audiences an ocean and a century away.
The second act of Ariadne is the performance itself. The cramped, mildewy hallway is replaced by a modern, vaguely sexual petal-shaped cavern, and Ariadne herself is revealed in a spinning seed pod-cum-egg-cum-boat kind of thing, all courtesy scenic designer Tobias Hoheisel. Ariadne, the character of Greek myth, is stranded on a desert island and mourns the loss of her one true love, Theseus. (He didn't die, he just ditched her after she saved his life. Typical.) Echalaz, the hoity-toity Prima Donna of the first act, is also Ariadne here, and she spends much of the performance either in sublime misery or curled up in her egg in melodramatic grief. As beautiful as her arias are (and be not mistaken, they're gorgeous, if occasionally strained), she's a real Debbie downer.
During the writing of Ariadne, as described by Michael Kennedy in a 2013 Guardian article, von Hofmannsthal and Strauss clashed over what should be jettisoned to shorten what was originally a 5-hour work: less play (Strauss hated this idea) or less opera (von Hofmannsthal was loath to cut the Ariadne within Ariadne).
For this reviewer, Strauss should have gotten his way a little more. The opera within the opera is indeed sublime, as it must be, but it's by no fault of the Santa Fe Opera that its exquisite misery just got exhausting. I couldn't have been more relieved when the commedia dell'arte troupe crept onstage during Ariadne's mournful reverie and aimed to cheer her up. The four men (Jarrett Ott, Anthony Robin Schneider, Matthew DiBattista and Terrence Chin-Lay, a fantastic comedic ensemble if ever there was one) dance around barbershop quartet-style, canes and all, as Ariadne in her flowing black robes whinges and whines. "We sympathize with the lover's grieving," they sing, "but endless sighs are unappealing."
And now for the timeless humanity: Zerbinetta, in a flawless and acrobatic rondo, essentially tells the slumped figure in the egg to get over herself. Praise be to Zerbinetta (and, in turn, Redpath)! She emerges as the true heroine of this story, reminding Ariadne that there is impossible loneliness wherever there are people; "Onstage I seem to be light and coquettish, but maybe my heart is not onstage at all," she sang in the first act. Now, the party girl drives home that, after the lights go out, the party guests invariably leave. She's surrounded by men and admired by audiences, but she is so deeply and quintessentially alone. Which fate is worse? The literal desert island, or the desert island that we are? "In each of us beats the same unfathomable heart," she sings to an unresponsive Ariadne.
After a poignant and bittersweet ending, the curtain call elicited the first standing ovation of the year from this reviewer. Of course, Echalaz received the final bow and the rowdiest audience response—but all my personal bravas go to Redpath and Majeski and their smoldering Sally-Bowles-meets-Nic-Cage-from-Moonstruck chemistry. "Seize whatever life may offer, be it bliss or a broken heart," the troupe had sung. "Welcome feeling, welcome passion, welcome Cupid's painful dart." All of this feeling and passion is more than welcome—and as for those darts: If they're from this cast, keep 'em coming.
Ariadne auf Naxos: Four performances through Aug. 23. $47-$310. Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5900, santafeopera.org.