The 1912 world premiere of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos had a built-in pacing problem: while the opera itself was only 90 minutes, it was performed second on the same bill as Le bourgeois gentillehomme – a lengthy play that by itself ran 4.5 hours. This, unsurprisingly, was not the best combination even before the advent of television and smartphones to lower attention spans. In its wisdom, Minnesota Opera has not chosen to perform this original version, and instead opened its season on Saturday with Strauss’ vastly improved 1916 version.
As an opera, Ariadne auf Naxos is an interesting juxtaposition of serious and comic material. Evaluating performances of it can be quite difficult, because one of its underlying schemes is that half of the principal cast is supposed to upstage the rest. Much of its success involves carefully balancing the undercutting with the exaggeratedly straight delivery, which requires a deft hand from the stage and music directors. This is not an area in which Alan E. Hicks or Michael Christie disappointed – quite the contrary, as the vision and execution were splendid. The tableaus are especially illuminated by the excellent commedia dell’arte costumes by Cynthia Savage, which do much to invigorate the (deliberately) slow passages of the opera-within-an-opera and rarely failed to draw chuckles as the characters wearing them crept onstage.
The brightest vocal star of the evening is soprano Erin Morley, whose lithe coloratura and sparkling light touch on high notes was matched by her alluring stage presence as Zerbinetta. In this respect, she is aided alternately by some of the most beautiful and fun music that Strauss put to page, but that is vocal icing on the icing – Ms. Morley would be enticing regardless.
Faced with that type of competition, the best thing an Ariadne can do is to play it straight as a ham, and that’s exactly what Amber Wagner does as the Prima Donna/Ariadne. Wagner’s soprano voice ripples with a dark color that raises eyebrows and gives you goosebumps; as the much-put-upon Prima Donna, she is also a deft seriocomic actress. Compared to these leading ladies, every other performance slips back bay the wayside, however agreeable it might be.
Just make sure to grab some coffee during intermission, because Strauss makes you wait for some of the opera’s best moments.