Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” is an irresistible challenge for a director. This opera-within-an-opera cues up tedious bloviating about the nature of art directly alongside lowbrow slapstick. Which side “wins” is, to a great extent, the choice of the director, who can either consecrate or ridicule the highfalutin Greek legend depending on who does what during the singing.
The most common approach is for the impish, vulgar comedy players to gradually withdraw or be won over by the time the passionate Ariadne-Bacchus love duet rolls around. At the Virginia Opera’s performance at George Mason University on Friday, director Sam Helfrich took this respectful approach, with only a small fillip of naughtiness at the final curtain. For the most part, he let the overly solemn scenes run without the subversive Marx Brothers interference they so sorely needed (though there was vulgarity aplenty during the comedy troupe’s big scene). Yes, Strauss’s glorious score might have been marred by audience tittering, but more distractions would have been welcome. Few librettos are so blatantly overstuffed; Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s words make Wagner sound like Gilbert and Sullivan.
Christina Pier, in the title role, was vocally firm, rich throughout her range — a true Strauss soprano. Whether her wooden acting was supposed to be part of the fun, I couldn’t say. The other standout was Audrey Luna as Zerbinetta; the coloratura was impressive, though not effortless, and she truly made a meal of her role. The trio of nymphs — Amanda Opuszynski, Courtney Miller and Jessica Julin — was very good. Ric Furman (Bacchus) and Stephanie Lauricella (Composer) did well, but their voices were perhaps not mature and meaty enough for the parts.
Strauss is notorious for the difficulty of his instrumental writing, and the challenges of this score stretched the musicians of the Virginia Opera Orchestra to their limits and sometimes beyond. Intonation and blend are the first things to go when the notes are this troublesome, and conductor Garrett Keast was not able to control balances to the singers’ benefit at all times.
Still, this was a very ambitious work for this company to tackle, and the performance, while certainly not world-class, was professional from top to bottom. There will be two final performances in Richmond on Friday and Saturday.
Battey is a freelance writer.