The Washington Opera's current production of Richard Strauss' "Ariadne auf Naxos" is almost pure magic: beautiful sets, insightful direction, wizardly lighting and solid singing make it as good as anything you're likely to see on stage this season.
"Ariadne" is not an easy opera to perform. In a genre that makes the suspension of disbelief difficult enough, it ranks among the most deliberately artificial operas ever written. It belongs to that most rarefied of sub-genres: the opera within an opera.
It opens in 18th century Vienna at the home of the town's richest and most stupid parvenu. An idealistic young composer is about stage his latest work, an opera seria set in mythical Greece called "Ariadne auf Naxos, for the parvenu's guests at a banquet. The young man's hopes are --ed when the idiotic host insists that "Ariadne" be staged simultaneously with a lowbrow comedy, "The Fickle Zerbinetta," performed by a randy bunch of commedia dell' arte actors. The result is an opera so filled with parody that it insulates itself from criticisms usually made about the genre's unlife-like extravagances. This insulation allows "Ariadne" to approach the best Mozart in its ability to move listeners to tears.
The sets (Wolfram Skalicki) and the costumes (Amrei Skalicki) were superbly detailed and allowed for a suggestion of mystery. The lighting (Joan Sullivan), particularly in the climax which translates Ariadne and the god Bacchus to the stars, was dazzling. And Roman Terlecki's direction created a pace that never lagged and shifted gears easily between the sublimity of opera seria and the ridiculousness of farce. Not the least of many clever touches that played up "Ariadne's" self-consciousness was placing an audience of costumed extras -- including opera fans Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- on the stage for the opera within the opera.
Some of the most impressive singing in an unusually fine cast was by Rebecca Russell, a young mezzo-soprano with a brilliant future who gave a thrillingly ardent performance of the "trousers role" of the composer. Almost equally impressive was soprano Jan Grissom, a standout Norina in the opera's 1992 "Don Pasquale," who gave a spectacular account of Zerbinetta's famous coloratura aria and who was as much a pleasure to watch as she was to listen to. The opera's management warned that soprano Rachel Gettler (Ariadne) was "somewhat under the weather, but, despite a slightly wobbly start, she poured her voice out in the opera's final 40 minutes. Tenor Jon Fredric West met Bacchus' heroic vocal challenges without ranting; Kathleen
Segar, Susan Rosenbaum and Mary Margaret Sapp made a charming trio of Nymphs; and Ron Baker delighted as an athletic Harlequin.
The production's only weakness was that conductor Heinz Fricke's knowledgeable direction contended with an orchestra often out of tune and unable to sustain the irresistible ecstatic curve of Strauss' music.