At the end of Seattle Opera's previous production – a refreshing new staging of Handel's Semele – the ill-fated heroine is burned by Jupiter's glorious fire, but the god Bacchus emerges from her destruction: "born as my mother expired in the flames", as Hugo von Hofmannsthal has the wine god explain in his libretto for Ariadne auf Naxos.

Christiane Libor (Ariadne) © Alan Alabastro
Christiane Libor (Ariadne)
© Alan Alabastro

So there was a neat bit of story continuation, as it were, in the company's season-closing production of Ariadne auf Naxos, in which Bacchus's sudden arrival provides the apotheosis: he rescues the abandoned Princess Ariadne from her suicidal despair. Ariadne was a revival of the production from 2004 for which director Chris Alexander won Seattle Opera's Artist of the Year award.

Robert Dahlstrom's set initially presents a busily trafficked, impromptu "backstage" area where the two groups commissioned to provide the evening's entertainment – a highbrow tragic opera alongside a farce – scurry about frantically as they make last-minute preparations. (The sight of stagehands coping with a clunky flat set for Ariadne's rocky desert isle is a bit reminiscent of an intermission feature from a Met in HD broadcast.) 

But following this behind-the-scenes Prologue, the set is transformed into a tony gallery filled with Chihuly-esque glass sculptures and flanked by enormous abstract paintings. The performance proceeds as dinner guests watch from tables stationed on both sides of the stage. The gala has been financed by a Seattle-area Maecenas: say, a Microsoft mogul or an Amazon arriviste, who at the last minute has ordered the tragedy and the comic interlude to be performed simultaneously so as to avoid longueurs... and to ensure that the fireworks planned to crown the evening will not be delayed.

There's a longstanding tradition of 18th-century opera buffa shenanigans behind the meta-operatic premise of the Prologue, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal also anticipate postmodern attitudes in the deliberate confusion of genre of this third of their collaborations. And that poses Ariadne's key interpretive challenge: should its varied styles be construed simply as contradictions – an approach that tends to emphasise the comic – or is there a way to illuminate the sudden introduction of loftier musical rhetoric in both the Prologue and the staged opera without making it sound merely like parody? Is there, in the end, a relationship between the Composer's idealism (as projected onto his vision of Ariadne) and Zerbinetta's coy realism, a relationship deeper than comical incongruity?

Overall, Alexander's solution is to play up the comedy. He crowds the Prologue with witty stage business and motivates some genuinely funny physical movement from the cast. But after the clash of wills and personalities has been set up at length in the Prologue, he continues to harp repetitiously on the comic note in the main course. Continual vamping throughout Zerbinetta's big number, rendered as a cross between a sexy cabaret act and a cartoon with vaudeville clowning by her colleagues, distracts from anything beyond the surface layer. But an essential aspect of this opera's delicious irony is that for all her game artifice, Zerbinetta is the one who understands the transformation Ariadne must undergo: "When a newer god approaches, we surrender, silent..."

Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta) © Elise Bakketun
Kate Lindsey (The Composer) and Sarah Coburn (Zerbinetta)
© Elise Bakketun

Thanks to mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey's outstanding portrayal of the Composer, combined with Alexander's comic bias, the character-rich Prologue eclipsed the opera proper as the more satisfying part of the evening. Lindsey's astounding versatility of expression across the the role's wide range encompassed more than its comedy: she convincingly conveyed the ecstatic moments of creative inspiration and, in her interchange with Zerbinetta, of falling in love: through these Strauss gives the Composer dimension.

Lindsey underscored that it is the Composer who reveals the greatest variety of character, matched only by Zerbinetta in complexity. Together they represent the hedgehog and the fox, respectively, in Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction between those wedded to one great idea and those who embrace the contradictions of experience. 

As a knowingly coquettish Zerbinetta, Sarah Coburn was also at her most enticing in her scene with the Composer. Her perky enunciation of "Grossmächtige Prinzessin" at the beginning of her big number promised an attractively individual take, but the above-mentioned shtick began to intrude more and more and the outrageous coloratura – the real fireworks of the piece – was marred by some imprecision, though Coburn's voluptuous soprano offered much to admire. 

Christiane Libor brought the sheer beauty and power of her instrument to Ariadne (and real comic panache to the Prima Donna); her upper range tended to show stress, however, while the most forceful passages needed more control.

Christiane Libor (Ariadne) and Issachah Savage (Bacchus) © Alan Alabastro
Christiane Libor (Ariadne) and Issachah Savage (Bacchus)
© Alan Alabastro

Cast as Bacchus, the "new god" Ariadne mistakes for Death's messenger, was the exciting young American tenor Issachah Savage, who won Seattle Opera’s International Wagner Competition last year. Rowed in on a larger cooler stocked with champagne bottles for the dinner guests, Savage impressed with the vast size of his voice but sounded uneasy with the part's unforgiving tessitura. He seemed to concentrate on producing the notes at the expense of meaningful phrasing.

There were several notable contributions from the large cast, including Patrick Carfizzi's big-voiced, take-charge Music Teacher; Doug Jones in a hilarious turn as a Bob Fosse-influenced Dancing Master; Andrea Carroll as a plaintive Echo (all three nymphs wove a gorgeous fabric of sound); Andrew Garland's likeable Harlekin; and, in the opera's speaking role, the smug Butler of Georg Martin Bode. Robert Wierzel's lighting savvily accompanied the many moments of "transformation" that drive the inner story of Ariadne auf Naxos.

Many conductors exaggerate the discrepancy between the score's "Mozartean" and "Wagnerian" sides. In contrast, Lawrence Renes intriguingly suggested their common ground by highlighting the delicate chamber textures of much of Strauss's orchestration here, even in the most fevered, "Tristan"-ish passages of the Ariadne-Bacchus music. 

***11