"Ariadne auf Naxos," as conceived by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, is a burlesque of "Tristan und Isolde" cum "Siegfried." It travesties grand opera, and opera's rarefied personages and preoccupations (here love and loss), as it meditates on the meeting of art as inspiration and art as entertainment, on the uniting of classic and pop, on the presence of noble concepts in and out of their element, on love and lust. It invites the viewer to suspend disbelief and to disbelieve simultaneously, and it is therefore a comic opera, an opera buffa, not far removed in spirit from the Marx Brothers' send-up in "A Night at the Opera." The Tristan myth occupied Richard Wagner, of course, but it also powered Donizetti's comic opera "The Elixir of Love."
This is not a bad concept. The travesty role in opera -- a woman dressing as a man -- has historically served the same purpose, and it is therefore no accident that Richard Strauss, whose music in "Ariadne" is gorgeous and sophisticated as always, makes the male Composer, performed here by the beautiful Sophie Koch, a travesty role. Composers, he seems to be saying, are travesties. No matter how refined their preoccupations, they ultimately serve commercial ends. And so, if the richest man in Vienna requires the simultaneous performance for his guests of a grand opera and an Italian commedia dell'arte so that the fireworks in the garden may begin precisely at 10:00 p.m., it shall be done.
So much for the concept. The production here is moved to the present, and except for some slow-motion posturing in the party scenes, that particular transfiguration works. The costumes are spectacular. The lighting is great. The playing and singing in this Dresden production are excellent. Susan Anthony as the Prima Donna/Ariadne and Jon Villars at the Tenor/Bacchus (mistaken by lovesick Ariadne for her beloved Theseus) are in good voice. Ms. Koch, besides being fun to watch, also sings well. Even Friedrich Wilhelm Junge in the non-singing role of the Major Domo is a feast for the eyes.
Strauss never wrote a bad note of music. Maybe the trio that ends "Rosenkavalier" is to die for, but the trio of Echo, Naiad, and Dryad in this opera, for example, is pretty darn good too. If you like Strauss, you'll enjoy this performance.
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