Opera Preview: Opera Theater honors Strauss milestone with 'Ariadne'

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The incompetent chief steward of a newly rich man's household has erroneously scheduled two performances -- a serious opera and a troupe of comedians -- to take place on the same evening. His solution to the problem is to put them on simultaneously. This is the premise of Richard Strauss' "Ariadne on Naxos": a tragedy and a comedy all rolled into one.

It's an opera unlike any other, and for SummerFest 2014, Opera Theater of Pittsburgh is celebrating the 150th anniversary of Strauss' birth with three performances of this delightful work, opening Friday at the 20th Century Club on Bigelow Boulevard in Oakland.

The SummerFest production of "Ariadne" has been underwritten by Jerry Clack, a retired classics professor at Duquesne University and a lifelong Strauss fan who has one of the largest collections in Pittsburgh of opera CDs and DVDs.

"Opera in Pittsburgh has been stuck in the 19th century," Mr. Clack says. "It's time we examined more of the masterpieces of the 20th century, and Strauss is one of the most accessible 20th-century opera composers."

‘Ariadne on Naxos’

Where: Opera Theater of Pittsburgh at the Twentieth Century Club, Oakland.

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and July 26; 2 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $25-$75; festival passes also available; otsummerfest.org or 412-326-9687.

"Ariadne" was Strauss' next work after his most popular masterpiece, "Der Rosenkavalier," but it didn't start out as a full-fledged opera. In 1912, Strauss and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, the librettist for "Rosenkavalier," created a German version of Moliere's 17th-century comedy, "Le bourgeoise gentilhomme," which included several numbers of incidental music and the one-act "Ariadne" as a substitute for what was a "Turkish" entertainment in Moliere's play. Within a few years, however, "Ariadne" took off on its own. Strauss and Hoffmansthal wrote an operatic prologue to replace the spoken play, while the incidental music was collected into an independent symphonic suite.

"Ariadne" is a work of enormous subtlety and fine detail. The orchestra contains only 35 players, but each player is treated as a soloist. The vocal writing is fiendishly difficult, not only for the lead singers but also for the supporting players, who must sing and act in musically intricate ensembles while performing physically demanding actions on stage. Every element in a production of "Ariadne" must be close to perfection.

Mr. Clack points out "the many levels" of "Ariadne":

"It's a musical marvel, but it's also a comment on the human situation. It treats the meaning of love both comically and seriously. Hoffmannsthal was one of the great figures of 20th-century literature."

Putting on "Ariadne" is a daunting challenge, but it's also very rewarding. At least two members of the Pittsburgh Symphony approached general director Jonathan Eaton -- who will also stage the local performances -- to ask whether they might be part of his orchestra, donating their services free of charge.

Strauss and Hoffmannsthal never superimpose the tragic and the comic music one on the other; instead, the two groups alternate. As the opera opens, Ariadne and her three nymphs are lamenting their collective fate. Ariadne has been deserted by the god Theseus. As soon as these women have made their point, the tragedy freezes and the comedians enter: the extroverted and opinionated Zerbinetta with four male characters derived from traditional Italian commedia dell'arte. They ridicule Ariadne and her sad entourage.

The divas sing lengthy solos, each a parody of operatic conventions. Ariadne has an exaggerated but heartrending monologue in which she considers suicide. Zerbinetta counters with a coloratura aria to end all coloratura arias. She tells Ariadne not to shed tears over a man. Another one will come along. Then, a new man -- the handsome god Bacchus -- does come along, and wins Ariadne in a passionate love duet. All is not quite over, however. The comedians are waiting in the wings to make fun at the very end.

Listen for the gorgeous soaring line in Ariadne's monologue, when she sings, "You [Death] will set me free." Take notice, in Zerbinetta's aria (in addition to the obvious vocal fireworks), of the false ending on a held high note, meant to deceive the listener into applause before the aria is really over. Interspersed throughout the play are tuneful interludes vocalized by Harlequin and his comic cohorts.

The prologue, an addition that has become part of the standard version of this opera, portrays the confusion in the rich man's house, but also it introduces the composer of the serious opera, who does not appear in the main act. This character, given to a mezzo-soprano in "travesty," sings a magnificent aria in praise of music -- "the holiest art" -- expressing the artistic philosophy of Strauss himself.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor.

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