The Washington National Opera's production of Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" is simply fabulous. Brilliantly performed and sung and sharply directed, Saturday's opening-night performance brought good humor and artistic coherence to a work whose ultimate aim eluded even the composer and his librettist.
The initial 1912 version of "Ariadne," composed as a hybrid evening of music and theater, bombed on arrival. Composer and librettist eventually created a more successful, entirely operatic second version in 1916. Fast-forwarding the opera's concept to our own times, director Chris Alexander illustrates, in a way, how little art and politics have changed.
The opera's Prologue takes us backstage where opera singers and goofy commedia dell'arte performers, hired by a wealthy unseen patron to entertain dinner guests in his salon, are forced at the last minute to combine their shows to avoid delaying a scheduled fireworks display.
The Prologue's best vocal moments are given to the hapless Composer, a trouser role sung convincingly by mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson who embodies the dilemma of the artist whose integrity is overcome by the need for a paycheck.
Act 2 highlights what's left of the Composer's tragic opera, trimmed down and given a happy ending when the comics intervene. It's like a musical "South Park" in which eccentric patrons, snooty opera singers, clueless actors, and even Wagner's "Ring" cycle become equal opportunity victims of the satirist's pen.
Act 2 still focuses on suicidal Ariadne (soprano Irene Theorin) - who mourns her abandonment by her lover, Theseus. But now she gets saved by the comics and Bacchus (tenor Corey Evan Rotz) who picks up where Theseus left off. Miss Theorin's voice possesses great power and dignity. She articulates her role perfectly, going along with the travesty while never breaking character.
Initially listed to sing the role of Scaramuccio, one of the comics, Mr. Rotz - a long time WNO regular - was drafted to sing Bacchus when scheduled tenor, Par Lindskog, was unable to appear. He did a fine job, although, inexplicably, his voice suddenly deserted him as he headed for a concluding high note in a second act solo. He recovered quickly and prudently avoided the repeat of that bar a bit later.
Kudos to the remaining cast members as well, particularly to soprano Lyubov Petrova (Zerbinetta) whose show-off coloratura runs and comic timing added real pizzazz to the evening's antics.
Comic thespians, Harlequin (Nathan Herfindahl), Scaramuccio (Jason Karn, subbing for Mr. Rotz), Brighella (Greg Fedderly), and Truffaldino (Grigory Soloviov) were smashing in ensemble as were their counterparts in Ariadne's retinue, Naiad (Jennifer Lynn Waters), Dryad (Cynthia Hanna), and Echo (Emily Albrink).
The WNO Orchestra, a little uneven lately, was back at the top of its form under the baton of conductor Andreas Delfs who led the most clearly realized operatic production of this still-young season.
WHAT: The Washington National Opera presents Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28, Nov. 5, 10, and 13; 7 p.m. Oct. 31 and Nov. 2; 2 p.m. Nov. 8
TICKETS, INFORMATION: $50-$300; 202/295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS