Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos," an elusive opera-within-an-opera that attempts to fuse the frivolous and the heroic while making cruel demands on its principal singers, was an intriguing choice to open Minnesota Opera's 53rd season.
And it turned out to be a wise choice, judging by the engaging, occasionally hilarious and, in its final moments, sublime, performance the company presented at the Ordway Center in St. Paul Saturday night.
This is not, first of all, the way "Ariadne" usually looks. In a production created for Seattle Opera and staged here by Alan E. Hicks, the story is updated to the present. We're still at an elaborate party hosted by the city's wealthiest man. Only we're not in Vienna, rather in a private art gallery in a plush condo somewhere in the Twin Cities.
The plot generator is the same as in Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto. At the last minute, so as not to miss the fireworks display concluding the dinner, the host requests that two contrasting entertainments be performed simultaneously: a roustabout commedia dell'arte romp and a tragic opera based on the Greek myth of Ariadne. This puts the composer of the "serious" opera into a tizzy, and we leave him distraught at the end of the Prologue, which sets up the plot.
Comedy ensues, naturally. Hicks raises the laugh quotient by interpolating occasional contemporary terms into the dialogue ("butthead" comes to mind) and by turning Ariadne into a comic character. As a seduced and abandoned lady of antiquity who longs for death, Ariadne usually comes across as a trifle pompous and kind of a bore, whereas here she's the constant butt — or, if you will, butthead — of jokes by the comedy troupe headed by the saucy Zerbinetta. They pummel her, they upstage her, they humiliate her, when all she wants to do is sing her agonizing lament and then give up the ghost.
And thank Zeus, Minnesota Opera found in Amber Wagner a dramatic soprano of no small power who can actually play comedy. The fact that Wagner fills her phrases with sumptuous sound, gleaming high notes and impressive breath control, all delivered with such conviction, allowed the tone of the proceedings to shift from comic to a kind of elevated seriousness. This is Ariadne's great duet with Bacchus, a scene that the conductor Sir Thomas Beecham called the finest music that Strauss ever wrote. Many tenors have fallen short singing this difficult music, but not Brian Jagde who sang Bacchus Saturday night with stupendous stamina, tonal heft and affecting lyricism.
Erin Morley brought great comic energy and buoyancy to Zerbinetta, while demonstrating an effortless and exquisite coloratura during her showpiece aria. Hannah Hipp was an ardent Composer — aptly vulnerable and a trifle shrill on opening night. The strong cast included Brad Benoit as the Dancing Master and Andrew Lovato as Harlequin. Conductor Michael Christie paced the score with pliancy and nuance, drawing sumptuous sounds from the orchestra. Cynthia Savage designed the imaginative costumes.
We could quibble. Set designer Robert A. Dahlstrom's Richard Serra-style sculpture in the second act was an eyeful, but the bland backstage set for the Prologue didn't make sense. What's backstage in a condo? Couldn't this have been a kitchen or a hallway? And, since this is supposed to be a comedy set in the present, why not do the Prologue in English, as is done quite often in productions of this work? It's a language, we presume, familiar to many in the audience, and they say that nowadays even some singers can handle it.
All in all, though, this was a sparkling opening night.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis music writer.