Sublime Strauss; HGO’s Ariadne, an opera about opera, is both serious and funny

Patrick Summers
Houston Press

By D.L. Groover

The physical production of Houston Grand Opera's Ariadne auf Naxos is ravishing. But just wait until you hear the sublime music and the singing.

At the turn of the 20th century, German composer Richard Strauss, who had become an international sensation with lavish orchestral works (Don Juan, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, A Hero's Life, Don Quixote), focused on writing operas. The musical world has never been the same.

Having exhausted and fairly defined "modern music" with his scandalous Salome (1905) and ear-splitting Elektra (1908) — Strauss complained that the orchestra wasn't playing loud enough since he could still hear the singers — Strauss turned backward. With classy librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, he created an opulent homage to 18th-century Vienna, Der Rosenkavalier (1910), one of the finest works in the entire operatic repertoire. He and Hofmannsthal followed with another look at the world of Empress Maria Theresa, Ariadne auf Naxos (1916), a loving tribute to that era's predominant styles — opera buffa and opera seria.

In a prologue, we're backstage at the theater, in the house of the richest man in Vienna. He's commissioned two works for the evening's entertainment: an opera seria based on the legend of Ariadne, to be followed by an opera buffa using a troupe of commedia dell'arte players. The opera company thinks the commedia is low-class and terribly vulgar; the burlesquers regard the opera as snotty and conceited.

Since time is limited before the fireworks, it's announced that both pieces must be performed simultaneously. The earnest young composer (Susan Graham) is aghast at having to rewrite his "holy art," but the commedia's Zerbinetta (Laura Claycomb) can't wait to put the haughty Prima Donna (Christine Goerke), who will sing Ariadne, in her place with the antics of Harlequin (Boris Dyakov) and her other fellow clowns (Brendan Tuohy, Nathaniel Peake and Robert Gleadow).

Then begins the two-in-one opera. Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. She's protected and overseen by nymphs Naiad (Kiri Deonarine), Dryad (Catherine Martin) and Echo (Brittany Wheeler). Spurned, Ariadne longs for death, but Zerbinetta interrupts and advises her to love whoever's around. Men are all alike, she teases saucily, no need to be so choosy or upset. With godly fanfare, Bacchus (Alexey Dolgov) arrives, and Ariadne, thinking him the god of Death, welcomes his advances. They are both transformed by love at first sight, as they ascend into the stars. Zerbinetta ends the opera with a knowing wink.

Strauss sets this serious and funny work to some of his most transparently celestial music. Once you've heard his distinctive sound, you can never forget it — sweeping, rich and colorful. In Ariadne, Strauss lightens the texture. He's a post-romantic Mozart who keeps the 18th century close by as he pays homage while also gently mocking the style of a bygone age.

Director John Cox and designer Robert Perdziola (scrumptious sets and costumes) pay homage to Strauss with a flawless production that laughs at love and then treats it with utmost respect. Backstage, we get to see the antique stage mechanism in action. The corkscrew wave machine is perfection, and sweet Echo rides across the stage on a suspended cloud. Later, so does Zerbinetta, with another new lover. After intermission, we watch the "performance" from a view looking toward the stage, until in a coup de theatre marvel, as Bacchus prepares his entrance, the scene instantly changes into the view from backstage. Literally, theater's magic is wrought before our eyes.

Maestro Patrick Summers elicits aural magic from the HGO orchestra and his exceptional cast. Strauss writes unusually high vocal lines that can be treacherous to sing so that they sound effortless, but everyone here tosses off passages with an insouciant disregard for difficulty.

Graham, in the mezzo pants role of Composer, is her usual pro, stylish and refined, and she shades her paean to "holy music" with wrenching ardor. Claycomb, playing flirt Zerbinetta, sings one of the most difficult coloratura arias in any opera, "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," her ode to lust and her own jolly unfaithfulness. An absolute delight, she justifiably brings down the house with this showstopper.

Goerke, regal and statuesque, gives comic weight to the Prima Donna and gravity to Ariadne. Although she lacks ultimate heft when her voice moves into the higher register, no one can top her velvety, stentorian middle range. Dolgov, as Bacchus, breezes through the role's stratospheric tessitura, ardently wooing and winning.

Ariadne, so perfectly crafted and realized in this eye-popping production from HGO, couldn't be a better intro to the fabled world of opera — and the fabled operas of Richard Strauss.