by MICHAEL J. OPPERMAN
Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos is an oddball opera, and requires a deft hand to stage. Understanding its conception helps provide some context for the compositional and constitutional strangeness. The opera was originally conceived as a thirty-minute divertissement intended to be performed at the end of a Molière adaptation. The opera ended up being ninety minutes and the performance of the play and the opera together came in at over six hours.
Hugo von Hofmannstahl, the adapter of the play and the librettist of the opera, convinced Strauss to combine the serious classical story (the opera) with a comedy performed by a commedia dell’arte troupe (the Molière adaptation). Then he convinced Strauss to compose a prologue as a story of how such a hybrid could come to be.This prologue shows the backstage circumstances leading up to the second part, which is an opera within an opera. So Ariadne auf Naxos, the one staged by the Minnesota Opera, was not what Strauss imagined when he composed a thirty minute piece in 1912.
The curtain opens on “The Composer” (Hanna Hip) standing on the front of the stage and conducting the MN Opera orchestra pit, which provides another self referential layer. All of this works because of the slapstick, smart way in which the MN Opera staged the production.
Frenzied with activity, the stage is full of people preparing for a wealthy man’s party. He has engaged both an opera company and a comedy troupe to perform as a display of his largesse. A competition between low and high art, represented, respectively, by the comedy and the opera, is central to the prologue. The troupe is posturing and irreverent. The opera cast melodramatic and self important. This tension lends itself to laugh out loud funny moments. Then both groups are informed that they must perform together, a whim of the host.
Costume and set follow the juxtapositions of Strauss’ work. A drab backstage with paper signs and the traffic of cooks, butlers, and hangers on for the prologue. An immaculate setting for the opera, complete with projected fireworks in the background.
“The Composer,” a male character, is written for a soprano, and “The Prima Donna” (Amber Wagner) and Zerbinetta (Erin Morley) are both sopranos. Zerbinetta is technically a coloratura soprano, a voice distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills. Morley is well cast for her nimble register, which is also fitting for the star of a commedia dell’arte troupe. A romance in the opera, between “The Composer” and Zerbinatta, is realized through soprano duets, dramatic and coloratura. This is somewhat unusual, and contributes to a general unexpectedness of the opera.
The sopranos are contrasted and complimented in the first part by several tenors: “The Tenor” (Brian Jagde), Scaramuccio (Brad Benoit), and Brighella (David Walton). “The Music Teacher” (Dale Travis) is the single prominent baritone. The second part, the opera, is dominated by sopranos. “The Prima Donna” (now Ariadne), Zerbinetta and the addition of the Naiad (Jeni Houser), Dryad (Helena Brown), and Echo (Siena Forest). The mix, talent and number of sopranos delivers on the consummately beautiful music of the Strauss’ score.
Ariadne auf Naxos is a peculiar opera, and the MN Opera has superbly staged it in a manner that is accessible for the beginning opera fan and intriguing and challenging for a veteran. The opera is provocative, and the music exhibits Richard Strauss interesting position straddling the late Romantic and early modern eras. Accessible and funny, the production is a great choice for opening the season.
Ariadne auf Naxos. Music by Richard Strauss. Libretto by Hugo von Hofnannstahl. Conducted by Michael Christie. Presented by the Minnesota Opera, September 26, October 1, 3, and 4, 2025. Information at http://www.mnopera.org/season/2015-2016/ariadne-auf-naxos.