Houston Grand Opera presents Ariadne auf Naxos

On Tuesday, April 26, I took my mother to see Ariadne auf Naxos, produced by the Houston Grand Opera at the Wortham Theatre downtown. I did just a little bit of reading beforehand about the plot, and loved the concept. It’s an opera-within-an-opera, so a riff on the play-within-a-play form that I’m familiar with. And the opera that is within the opera has some ties to Greek mythology which drew my interest, too.

It’s a comedy in which a young and passionate composer expects to present his opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, to a rich Venetian’s dinner party; this is a very serious opera, he feels, an artistic masterpiece, deserving of serious contemplation. He finds out immediately before that his opera is to be followed by a comedic song-and-dance piece, which he finds offensive; and the comic star, Zerbinetta, is equally offended at having to follow a “dreary” opera. Everyone is still more upset when they hear of the Venetian’s last-minute whim to have the two pieces performed, not back to back, but simultaneously!

Zerbinetta, standing, with Ariadne

I thought this sounded like great fun and rather classic comic theatre. The first act contains the above behind-the-scenes angst; the second act is the opera-cum-comedy itself. The back story is not really present in the opera but I’ll give it to you anyway: Ariadne is sister to the dreaded Minotaur, and she helps Theseus to kill him and escape from the labyrinth, thinking that they will live happily ever after together. But Theseus tires of her and leaves her on a desert island, where we meet her first, languishing in despair over her unrequited love. Zerbinetta’s comedy involves four lovers and her eventual selection of her favorite. Meanwhile, she coaches Ariadne, who desires death, that she can love and be happy again in another man’s arms. Zerbinetta chooses her man; Bacchus presents himself to Ariadne, who mistakes him for Hermes and thinks he has come to take her away in death. He finally manages to convince her he does not hold her demise, but rather, that he loves her and wants her for himself. Happily ever after.

The plot comes out a little thin in production, but this show is not about plot, as I’ve observed before of Cats and Cirque du Soleil. The plot is not the point. In this case, the point is the outrageous tricks these performers can do with their voices. This is, as usual, something I have to accustom myself to. In the case of Cats or Cirque, I give myself up to the acrobatics, the music, the dance. In this case, it’s the operatic singing and the orchestral music. It takes a little effort or at least a little awareness for me to slow down and appreciate these things. As an amateur to the opera, I begin by watching the subtitles screen in order to follow the story; but each sentence takes 60 seconds (or more) to sing onstage, and I quickly get impatient. Move on already! This is the wrong way to watch an opera. The right way, I think, is to stay loosely or vaguely aware of the plot or the words being sung, and to lose myself in the incredible vocal acrobatics.

My experience with this full-length opera was not entirely a success, but I’ll take the blame for not being practiced at appreciating opera. It seemed well-done, but perhaps is somewhat an acquired taste, and definitely requires a leisurely pace in its enjoyment. I don’t think of myself as a terribly impatient person but it felt slow to me. I think if this almost three-hour production was presented as three one-hour serial episodes I would enjoy it very much. And also, to be fair, if it didn’t go past my bedtime.

So, I don’t give it an outstanding review, but I take most of the responsibility myself. It was certainly an interesting experiment.

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