Imagine an episode on “Celebrity Apprentice” where Donald Trump orders John Williams and Woody Allen to collaborate on a comedic opera about the merits of serial versus singular romantic love. Have Renée Fleming, Britney Spears, and José Carreras play the major roles. Resurrect the Marx Brothers, throw in some fireworks, impose a two hour time limit and that would approximate the quality of the Minnesota Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” that opened on September 27, 2015.
If that sounds entertaining, it is. Certainly, the audience thought so by their standing ovation. But in terms of dramaturgy, Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s allegorical libretto (based on a Moliere play) combined with Strauss’ partiality toward “modern” musical forms and topics as in Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” provide an uneasy comedic foundation, at best. The lofty Ariadne and Bacchus, who embody the 19th century notion of idealized love, provide perfect comedic foils for the coquetry and shenanigans of the Commedia dell’Arte troupe with which they are forced to share the stage. The juxtaposition of these opposing forces sparks much laughter and several beautiful and expressive arias. But it also undermines the dramatic impact of the lovers’ final duet in which they solemnly declare the transformative power of romantic love.
All the performers came across marvelously well within this uneasy coupling of ideas. Amber Wagner as the prima donna/Ariadne and Erin Morley as the coquette Zerbinetta soared to melodic heights in their arias. Brian Jagde as the tenor sings with godlike gusto as Ariadne’s would-be lover Bacchus. Hanna Hipp makes a convincingly frustrated composer. Jeni Houser, Helena Brown, and Siena Forest as Ariadne’s attendants and Andrew Lovato, Brad Benoit, David Walton, and Benjamin Sieverding as Zerbinetta’s paramours showed off their sonic and comedic acting chops.
The production’s stagecraft was generally excellent. More might have been done with the play-within-a-play’s audience in terms of cuing the opera audience’s reaction, particularly to the final duet. However, Michael Christie‘s crisp direction of Strauss’s beautiful score and the set and costume designs of Robert Dahlstrom and Cynthia Savage contributed greatly to the performance’s understated effectiveness.
Baby boomers might recall the many impediments that beleaguered Dick Powell or Mickey Rooney in mounting musicals in their movies. But their frothy entertainments were never burdened by the structural and metaphysical mishmash that encumbers Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s creation. That this production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” succeeds so well is a credit to the creative cast and team who give it life.