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Among self-referential music genres, opera may not be at the same level as hip hop or funk, but it’s within the top tier. Composers have always been acutely aware of opera’s clichés, borrowing liberally from one another (or themselves) out of tribute or just plain laziness. How else to explain the repeated use of love potions and tuberculosis as plot devices? Operas about singers make up a significant part of the canon, particularly in the German tradition, with Wagner’s Tannhauser and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos stands out as the most famous of self-referential operas, and also the most musically bipolar. In it, Strauss created an opera-within-an-opera to spoof opera conventions in the first act, before settling into a fairly conventional opera in the second.
The opera-within-an-opera spoof wasn’t a new idea in Strauss’ day; baroque composer Florian Leopold Gassmann had the same idea 150 years earlier with L’Opera Seria, a much more entertaining work that Wolf Trap Opera staged to better effect in 2016. Unlike Gassmann, who went with a full-on farce, Strauss couldn’t quite make up his mind where he wanted to go with it: the music mixes opera seria with opera buffa, and the jokey prologue was added after an earlier version flopped four years earlier. The seria part comes from the Greek myth of Ariadne, a princess who fell in love with Theseus after he killed the Minotaur before he dumped her on the island of Naxos; the buffa part from two rival companies—one opera, one burlesque—forced to stage the drama together. It’s an attempt to reconcile high and low art, one that pokes fun at other composers’ (Wagner in particular) reliance on godlike heroes and tragic heroines while relying on them as well.
It’s an opera that is at once lofty and silly. Ariadne, abandoned by her lover, sings a paean to death, only to be interrupted by a goofy song-and-dance number. Zerbinetta, a libertine burlesque dancer, convinces her to forget her ex and get back on the market with an aria that’s both irreverent and the most demanding of the opera, a coloratura showpiece full of rapidly ascending runs and trills, and a terrific rondo with a flute. Wolf Trap Opera’s cast, all young singers at the beginning of their careers, tackle the challenges with aplomb, particularly Alexandra Nowakowski as Zerbinetta, a sparkling soprano. Alexandria Shiner, playing Ariadne (as a stuck up diva with furs), and Ian Koziara, playing Bacchus (as an exaggerated heroic tenor with a hairpiece), call for your contempt at the beginning and sympathy at the end, and do so with powerful voices. One curiosity of Ariadne is the inclusion of a trouser role, a male composer played by a soprano—here, the emotive Lindsay Kate Brown. Director Tara Faircloth ramps up the slapstick with tiny lap dogs and a vaudeville barbershop quartet, then drops it all as Strauss’ self-seriousness takes over.
One of the pitfalls of satire, particularly period-specific satire, is the required context. Ariadne is so confusing largely because it mocks multiple eras and genres from a time when the boundaries of morality and music were in flux. The opera company which seeks to stage a “serious” Ariadne, one in which the heroine dies a tragic but chaste death, personifies the waning of the Victorian era, with its priggish religiosity and bombastic romanticism. The dance troupe, led by the proudly promiscuous Zerbinetta (“If God had intended for us to resist men, why would He have made them in so many varieties?”), heralds the gradual democratization of both art and sex during what would become the roaring twenties.
Those unfamiliar with the peculiarities of a genre as peculiar as opera will miss the inside jokes, just as they will miss the inventive musical contrasts in Strauss’ score. The music is doubly impressive given the small orchestra for which it is written—just 30 players, from whom Wolf Trap conductor Emily Senturia draws a rich and beautiful sound—playing on stage rather than in the pit, but unfortunately hidden behind a screen for half of it.
Ariadne is, ultimately, less of a mockery of opera than a love letter to it. Unlike Gassmann, Strauss concludes that his profession, for all its posturing and pomposity, is worthy of reverence, leading to a tonal shift to high romance which is unconvincing. Its appeal is not for casual fans, but those die hard geeks who recognize the absurdities of their subculture and embrace it all the more. This opera may fall mostly on deaf ears, but geeks of other genres will understand the sentiment.
The production runs to July 27 at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Road, Vienna. $42–$80.