Coquette Me Not: Petrova?s Zerbinetta makes clowns swoon.

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After a fall series of textbook opera-lite, the Washington National Opera may be poking some fun at itself with the choice of Ariadne auf Naxos. Up to this point, the message seemed clear: Sure, people can get off on Wagner, but you’re more likely to sell out the KenCen with The Barber of Seville (September) and Falstaff (October). November brings the curious self-consciousness of Strauss’ almost-allegory about the codependency of comedy and tragedy. It’s a weird beast, this opera, which begins with a farcical backstage powerplay between two competing groups of thespians—a racy burlesque troupe and a handful of opera prime donne, both sets hired as dinner entertainment for a Trimalchio-like party hosted by the “richest man in the city.” The end of the first act threatens to descend into mutiny, when the rich gent’s major-domo informs the performers that both spectacles are to be staged simultaneously. The second act, a split-personality opera-within-an-opera, then unfolds as a dialogue between the jilted Ariadne and the coquettish Zerbinetta, the one pining for death after Theseus’ betrayal, the other telling her to get over it already. (“If Gods wanted us to resist men,” Zerbinetta points out, “why did they make so many different kinds?”) That the broad diametrics of the pastiche, and the play’s forthright designs on the audience, never come off as hokey is a testament to Strauss, yes, but also to the company itself: Elizabeth DeSchong’s Composer, a brooding artsy type, given to melodious outbursts about being too pure for the earth; Lyubov Petrova’s glittering soprano as the deceptively wise Zerbinetta; and John Horton Murray as Bacchus, who sails into Naxos at the end, banishing Ariadne’s death wish and fulfilling Zerbinetta’s pronouncement that tragedy’s a bit impractical when there are so many dalliances left to be had. That aforementioned split personality has its logistical drawbacks, of course: The opera-within’s staging is principally declamatory, with most of the kinetic energy delegated to the broad burlesquerie of the clowns. The opera folks stand and deliver, which keeps things static but puts the focus squarely where it should be: on the music, with a transcendent ensemble overmatching the diaphanous sound of the reduced pit orchestra in now-gentle, now-thunderous arias that climax—thanks to Robert A. Dahlson’s rotating set design for Ariadne’s cave—in an opening-up, both physical and musical, as Ariadne gives herself back to the world. The near-mortal rawness of Bacchus’ tenor—having been burned by Circe, he’s primed to feel for Ariadne—rises, as the cave unfurls, toasting his love for Ariadne as she, no longer in mourning, prays that her sorrows “be not forgotten.” It’s a moment of manifold conciliation—of genres, voices, and humans; not opera-lite at all, in other words, but a thing of substance and grace.