In the "opera within an opera," Ariadne auf Naxos, madcap backstage melodrama is just a precursor to onstage expressions of love, loss and spiritual transformation. Sir Andrew Davis, conductor laureate of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, makes his Canadian Opera Company debut conducting the score by Richard Strauss. Neil Armfield is the stage director of a stellar cast that includes soprano Adrianne Pieczonka as The Prima Donna/Ariadne; the spectacular coloratura soprano Jane Archibald as Zerbinetta; mezzo-soprano Alice Coote as the Composer; and Richard Margison as the Tenor/Bacchus.
The opera tells the tale of the Greek mythological figure, Ariadne, who awakes after a long sleep to discover that she has been abandoned by her lover on the island of Naxos. These proceedings are interrupted by the arrival of a commedia del arte troupe, whose jesting characters are keen to put their own spin on the situation. It's a delightful mix of opera seria and opera buffa traditions, as both come together on one stage in a raucous and entertaining presentation.
Ariadne auf Naxos
Opera in one act, with prologue
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, after Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by Jean Baptiste Poquelin Molière.
World Premiere: Stuttgart, October 25, 1912.
First performance of revised version: Vienna, October 4, 1916.
U.S. Premiere: Philadelphia, Academy of Music, November 1, 1928.
This Performance: Recorded at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, May 18, 2011.
A production of Welsh National Opera.
The cast (in order of vocal appearance):
The Music Master: Richard Stilwell, bass-baritone
The Major-Domo: Thomas Hauff, spoken role
A Lackey: Doug MacNaughton, baritone
An Officer: Roger Honeywell, tenor
The Composer: Alice Coote, mezzo-soprano
The Tenor/Bacchus: Richard Margison, tenor
The Wig-Maker: Adrian Kramer, baritone
Zerbinetta: Jane Archibald, soprano
Prima Donna/Ariadne: Adrianne Pieczonka, soprano
The Dancing Master/Brighella: John Easterlin, tenor
Naiad: Simone Osborne, soprano
Dryad: Lauren Segal, mezzo-soprano
Echo: Teiya Kasahara, soprano
Harlequin: Peter Barrett, baritone
Truffaldino: Michael Uloth, bass
Scaramuccio: Christopher Enns, tenor
Canadian Opera Company Orchestra
Conductor: Sir Andrew Davis
Director: Neil Armfield
The Music Master (baritone): The experienced, kindly music teacher of The Composer. He wants to help his young student's career as much as possible.
The Major Domo (spoken role): The representative of the "wealthiest man in Vienna," at whose house the young composer's opera Ariadne auf Naxos is to be performed.
The Composer (mezzo-soprano, a "trouser" role, i.e., a male character played by a woman): A passionate young man. Sure of his talent, yet fragile and sensitive to criticism. His artistic ideals have yet to be tempered by real-life experience.
The Tenor (Bacchus) and the Prima Donna (Ariadne, soprano): The two stars of the young composer's opera. They are both conceited, self-centered artists, concerned only with their own careers.
Zerbinetta (soprano): The coquette-ish star of the Italian comedy that is also being presented for the wealthiest man in Vienna. She is a resourceful and charming woman.
Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldino, and Brighella: The quartet of men who perform as Zerbinetta's comic suitors.
Naiad, Dryad and Echo: Three nymphs in the opera.
Synopsis (re-printed with permission by the COC):
Backstage of a private theatre in a mansion, the Music Master protests to the Major-Domo because he has learned that the opera, Ariadne on Naxos, newly composed for performance at a soirée at the mansion that evening, will be followed by a "vulgar" performance by a troupe of comedians and a fireworks display. He complains that the Composer (the Music Master's protégé) will be deeply offended by this arrangement. Haughtily, the Major-Domo tells him that since his employer, the richest man in Vienna, is paying for the production, his instructions cannot be altered. The Major-Domo exits.
The Composer then enters and soon encounters Zerbinetta, the leading lady of the comic troupe that is to mount The Fickle Zerbinetta and her Lovers.
As the Music Master predicted, the Composer is furious when he learns of the decision to present a comic work following his own serious opera. The Prima Donna, who is to appear as Ariadne in Ariadne on Naxos enters and wastes no time in exhibiting her disdain for Zerbinetta and her troupe of comedians. Zerbinetta responds with an equally contemptuous statement that the "boring" serious opera will spoil the evening.
The Major-Domo returns to announce a change in plans, which will subject the Composer's opera to further indignities: in order to avoid any delay to the fireworks display, Ariadne on Naxos and The Fickle Zerbinetta must somehow be performed simultaneously! The Composer is horrified, but the Dancing Master from the comic troupe suggests that the performance will work out well because his players are good at improvising. Cuts are made to the music of Ariadne on Naxos, and Zerbinetta decides that she and her companions will do what they can to enliven the piece. Zerbinetta then charms the Composer into reluctantly accepting this arrangement.
The stage is set for the opera Ariadne on Naxos. On the deserted island of Naxos, the anguished Ariadne, recalling how she was abandoned by the untrue Theseus, prays for death. Zerbinetta and the other comedians enter and attempt to console Ariadne with singing and dancing. Ariadne retreats into a cave in the rocks, and the comedians flirt with Zerbinetta. After this interlude, the opera continues, and the god Bacchus enters.
For a moment, Ariadne mistakes him for her Theseus, but regaining her senses, she greets Bacchus as a god of peace. Her grief is transformed, and, finding love in the arms of Bacchus, she chooses life over death. Zerbinetta re-enters to knowingly remark, "When the new god approaches, we surrender without a word."
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