Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who once lamented that overturning a law criminalizing homosexuality might lead to the invalidation of laws criminalizing masturbation, adultery and fornication, received a little lap dance on Saturday night. Location: The Washington National Opera. The purpose: To further the performance of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
Scalia was on stage at the Kennedy Center Opera House as a VIP supernumerary, along with his colleague Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Washington’s delegate to the House of Representatives, Eleanor Holmes Norton. They were part of the onstage “audience” which watches an opera—Ariadne auf Naxos—performed during the second half of this weirdly post-modern tale of backstage drama and on-stage romance. For just a few seconds, the flirtatious and resolutely promiscuous Zerbinetta—dazzlingly sung by the evening’s star, soprano Lyubov Petrova—gave Scalia his own little show during one of her robustly sexual solos. The justice looked pleased. He was, of course, merely doing his duty as a celebrity wallflower on opening night of this new-to-Washington production.
It was one of those odd, only-inside-the-Beltway moments, and the audience howled. But the WNO’s Ariadne auf Naxos is thoroughly entertaining and this production meets its fundamental challenge: How do you stitch together Ariadne’s polar absurdities, its mix of crowd-pleasing silliness and High Art? How do you make us care about a mythological romance between abandoned Ariadne and the young god Bacchus, when we have already met them, in the piece’s lengthy prologue, as a temperamental diva and sneering tenor, both straight from opera central casting?
Strauss and his mandarin librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, conceived Ariadne as an enactment of the tensions within the creative process of making opera. A young, idealistic composer, the sort of lad who has read his Sorrows of Young Werther and spent long winter nights with Jean Christophe, is about to premiere his new opus, Ariadne auf Naxos, which celebrates with Kierkegaardian extremity the purity of erotic and existential longing. But at the very moment his magnum opus is about to begin, a cruelly indifferent Major Domo announces that the rich patron of the spectacle has decreed that Ariadne auf Naxos will be presently concurrently with a commedia del arte farce improvised by Zerbinetta and her troupe. High Art and Escapism must coexist.
The composer is crushed, but he isn’t immune to the charms of the irrepressibly sexual Zerbinetta. And thus begins a philosophical, musical and theatrical interpenetration of ideas: Pure love and fleeting desire, grand art and entertainment, music and narrative. Behind the scenes, Strauss is orchestrating everything and much of the pleasure of the piece is listening to the music’s suggestion of metaphysical affinities and opposites. It’s an odd and difficult confection to pull off, not least because it is also a major test of just about every voice type a composer can throw on stage.
First seen at the Seattle Opera in 2004, this production (by Chris Alexander) has a solid conceit: Instead of a “great noble” and “the richest man in Vienna” throwing a party (as in the original libretto), we have a capricious contemporary art patron hosting a gala, complete with champagne, a sit-down meal and fireworks to begin promptly at 9 p.m. The prologue (essentially the first act) is played out back-stage at the gallery, a blandly institutional space with cinder block walls and exposed pipes and restrooms serving as dressing rooms for the evening’s stars, while the opera-within-the-opera takes place in the gallery itself, with a domineering Richard Serra sculpture serving as Ariadne’s cave.
Updating is usually reflexive, an excuse for not thinking about the mechanics of the drama. But this updating is inspired. The art world is one of the few places where one can actually see Philistinism in practice today. Everywhere else, we’re all Philistines, or at least required to pretend that we’re Philistines. Even the rich. But the art world still takes itself seriously enough to believe in taste.
I first saw Ariadne at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta and Jessye Norman as Ariadne. It was luxury casting, but with a downside: Almost everyone else got lost in the vocal glamour. Not so with the Washington Opera, where many of the best bits come from singers in smaller roles, including Ariadne’s trio of winsome nymphs (Jennifer Lynn Waters, Cynthia Hanna, Emily Albrink) and Zerbinetta’s comedians (Nathan Herfindahl, Jason Karn, Greg Fedderly and Grigory Soloviov). Gidon Saks had all the right dramatic moves as the Music Teacher, rumpled, wise and addled.
Petrova, as Zerbinetta, dominated among the major roles. Her coloratura is not some flute-like register unnaturally attached to a normal soprano sound. It has edge and power throughout the range, and this combined to make her Zerbinetta more than the usual brainless flirt. She was arguing her world view—take your pleasures and move on, no worries—and her vocal pyrotechnics made her a powerful philosophical force rather than a mere distraction.
Kristine Jepson’s Composer was also more than the usual petulant teenager one so often sees in this role. Vocally, there are moments of astonishing sweetness and beauty in her tone. When she pushes it, that sweetness is lost, but the more powerful tone isn’t ugly, just less interesting. As Ariadne, Irene Theorin seemed trapped in vocal middle ground, not quite sure if this is a Strauss soprano in the Daphne mold, or one of his more Wagnerian-sized heroines. She too had moments of pure loveliness—and a lot of growl in her “totenreich” at the beginning of her soliloquy. But I left perplexed, never quite comfortable that she was comfortable in this role. As Bacchus and the Tenor, Corey Evan Rotz was replacing the announced singer. He began well, and the voice has an appealing, light but forceful tone. He stumbled at one point and that seemed to shake him but I’d like to hear him again.
Andreas Delfs, making his WNO debut, conducted the orchestra. Delfs moved things along briskly, perhaps too briskly, especially in the opening of Ariadne’s big number. Strauss’s often very light scoring in this quasi-chamber opera exposed the orchestra, sometimes for the worse, especially with the upper string sound. But this is to quibble unnecessarily. The show works well enough from top to bottom that you can forget any of these musical trifles, and simply immerse yourself in one of Strauss’s oddest, wildest and most daring inventions.
Lyubov Petrova as Zerbinetta; image by Karin Cooper for the Washington National Opera