‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ provides evening of dazzling performances

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Special to the Monitor


The Santa Fe Opera’s opening night of “Ariadne auf Naxos” offered an evening of glorious music by Richard Strauss and dazzling singing by a magnificent cast under the elegant baton of Maestro James Gaffigan. Director Tim Albery’s inspired production captivated with his eye-for-detail direction. Staging, in particular, was excellent. Albery (2016 “Cappriccio”) also provided the English translation.

A play within a play, “Ariadne auf Naxos” is a one-act opera with Prologue. The Prologue is sung in English, the opera in English and German. Hugo von Hofmannsthal, formed the libretto from Molière’s comedy, “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”

It consisted of two acts with incidental music by Strauss followed by a third act, the opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Its premiere in 1912 was a disastrous failure. Part of the audience expected a new Strauss opera and was not interested in the Molière play and those who came to see a play were not ready for an opera. Four years later, after frequent contentious communication between Hofmannsthal and Strauss, the work was revised with most of the Molière play becoming a Prologue followed by the opera “Ariadne auf Naxos.”

The result was a brilliant and successful comedic intertwining of the two. It premiered in 1916 at Court Opera in Vienna and has become the definitive version imbued with classic Straussian dramatic lyricism, long melodic lines, the interweaving of musical ideas and use of wide-ranging orchestral color.

The revision of “Ariadne auf Naxo’s” setting was moved from Paris to Vienna. The Prologue deals with the preparations for performing the one-act opera. The scene unfolds backstage in the basement of the wealthiest man in Vienna, a Count, who has commissioned “Ariadne auf Naxos,” by a young composer to be performed after a lavish dinner given for his guests.

The Composer is infuriated when he learns that a comedy act will follow his masterpiece. This news is bad enough. Soon he finds out from the Music Master, his teacher, that the Count wants the opera and the comedy act to be performed simultaneously in order to end in time for the nine-o’clock fireworks. Chaos ensues. The Composer is livid, and the Prima Donna and Tenor in the opera are indignant about having to abridge their singing. The comedic troupe, led by vivacious Zerbinetta, sees no problem with this setup. The troupe claims its great at improvizing. The Composer pronounces that Ariadne is a symbol for loneliness.

The troupe answers that they will provide her company. Meanwhile, the Composer finds himself attracted to Zerbinetta who believes there’s men galore to love, a woman shouldn’t focus on only one.

The opera, “Ariadne auf Naxos” is the Greek myth of Ariadne who is abandoned on the island of Naxos by her lover, Theseuss. Heartbroken, she dwells in a cave where she is watched over by three nymphs. Ariadne longs for death and waits for Hermes to take her to another world. Enter Zerbinetta and her troupe who try to raise Ariadne’s spirits with singing and dancing. Zerbinetta, who believes it’s foolish to pine away for one man, she herself can love two at a time, encourages Ariadne to find a new love. The nymphs signal the arrival of Bacchus on a ship. Ariadne thinks it is Hermes coming for her.

Moments later, she realizes her mistake. Bacchus announces he is a god and immediately falls under her spell. Ariadne succumbs to his words of love and together they ascend to the heavens.

It takes much stamina, and virtuosity, in some cases, to sing Richard Strauss. Amanda Majeski, in a dark suit, looking like a young Richard Strauss, sang the trouser role of the Composer. Her portrayal of a young man was excellent, and her aria Sein wir wieder gut, eulogizing music and ending with “Music is the most sacred of arts,” was sung with luxurious opulence.

Amanda Echalaz was the Prima Donna and Ariadne. (She was a wonderful Floria Tosca in the 2012.) Her voice was infused with the richest of timbres, powerful and resplendent. Her long aria, Es gibt ein Reich (“There is a realm”) was sung with profound poignancy. Bruce Sledge as the Tenor and Bacchus sang with fine voice, though a little edgy at times. Ariadne’s and his singing of the “Wagnerian” style duologue at the end of the opera was intense and powerful. Former Apprentice Liv Redpath making her SFO debut as coquettish Zerbinetta, was enchanting. She completely immersed herself in the role.

Her tour de force coloratura aria in Ariadne’s cave, “Als ein Gott kam jeder gegangen” (“Each one came as a god . . .”) in which she sings about her feelings towards men, their betrayals, and the finding of new loves, was stunning, pure silvery perfection. In the Comedy Troupe were former Apprentice, making his SFO debut, Jarrett Ott as Harlequin, Mathew DiBattista, making his SFO debut as Scaramuccio, and Apprentices, Anthony Robin Schneider as Truffaldino and Terence Chin-Loy as Brighella.

They were delightful comic actors with splendid voices. Their dance in Ariadne’s cave, even using canes ala Fred Astaire in one instance, was fabulous. The three nymphs, in soft blue-green tones, Meryl Dominguez, Samantha Gossard and Sarah Tucker, Najade, Dryade, and Echo respectively, moved gracefully about Ariadne’s cave and produced a pretty blend in their singing.

The cast list in “Ariadne auf Naxos” is long. Last but not least, with smaller singing parts in the Prologue, were SFO Apprentices Brent Michael Smith as the footman, Jesse Darden, the officer and Jarrett Logan Porter, the wigmaker. They all performed admirably.

Tobias Hoheisel’s scenic design served the production well with the backstage in the count’s basement having a drab and weathered look. In contrast, Ariadne’s cave was lovely, two large, very tall, circular panels in blue hues given different perspective and shadings of color with Thomas C. Hase’s lighting. Sometimes the atmospheric light gave the cave an otherworldly look.

Costumes were varied and colorful. Zerbinetta’s several outfits were shimmery. Her troupe wore three-piece suits and straw hats. However, I question dressing Ariadne in plain black and Bacchus as well, although his outfit was more attractive. If there’s a symbolic reason for doing so, it escaped me.

The instrumentation for “Ariadne auf Naxos” calls for a chamber orchestra with piano, two harps and several percussion instruments. Maestro Gaffigan demanded and got much out of the small group, whose sound at times was that of a larger orchestra. Strauss’ music is difficult to play and the chamber group did a commendable job of it.

Choreography by Kyle Lang, involving the comedy troupe, was strikingly creative and a pleasure to watch.

Remaining performances of Ariadne auf Naxos will take place at 8 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 15 and Aug. 23.