Saturday, January 19, 2019

Richard Strauss, Ariadne auf Naxos (1912)


Okay, so from now on, I'm going to try to write something about every opera I see. I don't know why I didn't start doing this a long time ago, really. I'm into opera now, FYI.

Ariadne auf Naxos. Or, you know, just Ariadne *on* Naxos; we could easily get into a long, boring discussion about whether and when and if to use untranslated versions of non-English titles, but let's leave that aside for now. I'd previously watched Strauss' Salome and Elektra, which are both pretty stunning pieces of work; my only regret is that I can't refer to the latter as "electrifying" without it seemingly like I'm making a lame pun. But it really is. Electrifying. So there. Anyway, those two are fairly similar: they're both one-act operas that push musical boundaries about murderous, obsessed women. Ariadne is not that at all. But I had to see it when I read about the premise, which seemed totally irresistible: the richest man in Vienna invites two musical groups to his house: an opera company which is going to put on a new, extremely Serious, Tragic opera; and a burlesque troupe to provide comic relief. Only, for Reasons, the schedule has changed so they're both required to perform at once. How do you not love that? I watched this Met production.

And reactions are...mixed. It's a little odd, and not always in the ways you'd want it to be odd. I think this is partially down to the opera itself and partially the production. There are two acts, the first being a back-stage prologue and the second the opera-within-the-opera itself. And that first act is very promising. It mainly consists of the composer (Susanne Mentzer in a pants role) getting outraged that she's being asked to desecrate her VERY, VERY SERIOUS opera (which is about Ariadne being stranded by the faithless Theseus on the island and eventually, natch, dying and stuff). She's pretty darned funny, as she (he? It's hard to know what pronoun to use here) gets caught up in the sheer, ineffable tragedy of the whole thing; Strauss punctures his pretensions effectively while still keeping him sympathetic, and his outlook starts to change when the leader of the comedy troupe, the coquettish Zerbinetta (the utterly delightful Natalie Dessay) starts flirting with him. But the thing is, after this act, that's it for the non-performing characters; the composer's just gone.

So then there's the opera itself, the bulk of which is focused on Ariadne herself (Deborah Voigt), and the thing is, she's...not very good, I have to say. Nothing wrong with her singing, but the acting just isn't there. It seems to me there are several ways to play this: do you go with high pathos occasionally collapsing into bathos, or do you do it with a touch of self-awareness? Or maybe some combination of the above? Well, Voigt goes with neither, such that it's impossible to tell what she's thinking about these goings-on. When the burlesque troupe appears and tries to cheer her up with a song, she basically reacts to them by...ignoring them. It seems like a lost opportunity. And it really does go on. It may be meant as a joke, kind of, only the length of the thing suggests that one is supposed to take it at least somewhat seriously, but with no real effort having been made to make the character sympathetic (and, again, with Voigt's non-performance not helping), it gets...well, a little boring. At one point the players show up again, and Zerbinetta sings a lengthy aria about her inability to settle on just one man. It gets a lengthy ovation, which is deserved, it's the best thing in the show, but, well, then she's gone and we're back to flippin' Ariadne. And, eventually, it ends, not tragically (the players apparently having impressed upon her in some imperceptible way their philosophy, that there are more fish in the sea), but not maybe possibly the most excitingly.

I dunno. It's nice that Strauss had a sense of humor about these things, which you wouldn't necessarily suspect from Salome and Elektra, but the execution here seems a bit half-baked--though, once again, it's possible that a production that set out specifically to address the structural problems could do better. Maybe I'll watch another production sometime and see how that works out.

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