Tumblers and fire jugglers in rainbow colors. Singing nymphs soaring for stories into the air. Arias deeply dramatic and broadly comic. The Metropolitan Opera’s interpretation of Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss is a magical mashup of modern and classic, seria and buffa, technique and technology that pleases but falls short of terrific for this reviewer.

Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta © Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera
Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta
© Cory Weaver / Metropolitan Opera

Operatically speaking, Ariadne is an odd-duck on many levels, full of surprises, not always happy ones. Structurally, it is one prologue and one act, which makes it a horse of a different color. Musically, it is both whimsy and majesty—occasionally at the same time. One also might expect the most important aria to be the title character’s but that privilege is conferred upon the burlesque comedienne Zerbinetta instead.

Both pieces of this opera look and sound very different, too. The prologue has a conversational tone interspersed with lyric elements provided mostly through the vocalizations of the Byronesque composer. For the prologue, the setting is backstage rough-and-tough—crates and baskets strewn about the stage, earth-colored backdrops and stage props dominating. The act that follows is, by contrast, so polished and atmospheric, that you’re left wondering if another production company was somehow responsible for presenting the second half of the opera.

The version of Ariadne that the Met presented is the reworked production Strauss premiered in Berlin in 1916, after the original version was deemed too impractical and ran far too long. Rather than present two successive productions, the 1916 version uses a prologue to explain why the first and only act that follows combines two discrete productions—one a burlesque and the other a grand opera. A powerful contrivance drives the plot—the most striking plot point in the opera—when the patron commissioning both the burlesque and the opera decides that both shows must be presented simultaneously rather than sequentially so the fireworks won’t be delayed, leaving it up to the two companies to work out the gritty details. It is a premise with promise that didn’t quite deliver to expectations in the opera’s lone act.

But it was fun seeing them have a go at combining two disparate shows into one seamless performance. It is knee-slappingly comical that Ariadne bemoans how alone she is on the island of Naxos, having been callously abandoned by her beloved Theseus, when the burlesque players' wagon rolls onto the stage to relieve her of her loneliness. Whereupon all the commedia dell'arte players pile out to lighten Ariadne’s dour mood with an array of stock shenanigans. However, Ariadne, the quintessential prima donna, stands for none of it, refusing to acknowledge the clown troupe's very presence.

Most of the performances were sturdy but not sparkling—Violeta Urmana as Ariadne and Robert Dean Smith as Bacchus, to name two. There were some notable exceptions. When Joyce DiDonato is onstage, it’s hard to see anyone else. She has charisma in spades. Though I preferred her vocally in Le Comte Ory, which seemed perfectly suited to her tessitura, she turned in an inspired performance as the composer.

The three nymphs sung by Audrey Luna, Tamara Mumford, and Lei Xu will long be remembered in this production. First, their ethereal numbers, strikingly composed by Strauss, were imaginatively and powerfully conceived by Elijah Moshinsky as twenty-foot tall sirens with powered wigs and celestially patterned gowns. Luminous, poised, and masterfully voiced, the trio of nymphs were indispensable to the success and interest level of the second half of the opera.

Soprano Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta, the darling of the burlesque show, nearly stole the entire show with a second-act aria as colorful as her clownish costume, replete with flawless coloratura runs and the highest of high notes.

However, conductor Fabio Luisi might have been the true star of the Met’s Ariadne. His style is antithetical to that of the restrained James Levine, who chooses not to conduct in a manner that distracts the audience from the aural experience. By contrast, Luisi’s body is lithe and animated. He moves with such fluidity—almost a balletic quality—he wasn’t distracting in the least. And the orchestra as a result, sounded facile and bright—a star in its own right.

Moshinky’s Ariadne for the Met is an admirable, creatively conceived production dating back to 1993 that deserves the longevity it has enjoyed. With a top-flight performer filling every role (not just selected roles), it has the potential to be marvelous, not merely peppered with marvels.