'Ariadne On Naxos:' OTSL Mixes Tragedy and Comedy for a Great Concoction

By Raphael Maurice
In Culture

Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg once alluded to the fact that the scientific method—the battles between Creationists and Evolutionary biologists, the frustrations and pitfalls of doing science, etc.—required that tragedy be mixed with comedy, like Shakespeare chose to so often. Weinberg was referring to the numerous revisions and errors that hold sway in most intellectual endeavors, be they scientific or artistic, the work of many brains and hands.

Photo by Ken Howard

Photo by Ken Howard

Which brings me to Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s “Ariadne on Naxos” (Strauss, 1916).  This opera pits the The Composer, played splendidly by Cecelia Hall, against the more vulgar forces that strive to drag The Composer’s musical endeavors down into the mire of the vulgar, and therefore the comical.

The Composer is an all-too-earnest soul, attempting to perform his masterpiece for a court that has gone humorously wrong, at least to his mind. In fact, the blatant sincerity of The Composer—his soul will rise into the aether and commingle with other geniuses, etc.—turns into comedy itself, when juxtaposed with Zerbinetta’s entourage of jugglers, clowns and common performers.

Zerbinetta, played splendidly by the beautiful So Young Park, is cast to rewrite The Composer’s opera for a sudden performance in the court in Vienna. Given writers and artists with a capital “A” are often myopic and self-involved, I found this mixture of the low and high in “Ariadne on Naxos” to be a perfect antidote to living, as David Foster Wallace put it, “in my own skull-sized kingdom.”

To see The Composer romanced by Zerbinetta and vice-versa, to see the collaboration between living mixtures of tragedy and comedy, sincerity and frivolity, was a joy.  It’s a fine and good thing to laugh at your own pretensions, which in the end, The Composer must do. He must collaborate in order to get his work out into the world, all the while wondering if he is making a Faustian pact, a sort of deal with a secular devil.

Believe it or not, OTSL makes a perfect mix of the high and low and, at the end of the opera, shows the stakes involved in getting one’s dearest art into the hands of others, into the ears of listeners. While I laughed and looked around at the audience—they, too laughed a great deal—I must admit that The Composer’s earlier sentiments, those of the uncompromising, burning artist, resonated with me in a sad and funny way. And Zerbinetta’s confessionals, all sung in a lovely soprano, lured me in and had me in the proverbial palm of the opera’s hand.

Some know the story of “Ariadne on Naxos,” which is the title of The Composer’s work of inimitable brilliance that will be released at court, until a fickle king gives orders at the last hour that changes must be made, and that the lower performers will have a hand in rewriting the opera in order to make it palatable for the aging despot so in need of entertainment. Ariadne was abandoned by Theseus after the latter was saved by her from Minotaurs and labyrinths, Theseus being one of those who “only court to thieve,” as A.E. Housman put it. In the end, the audience is witnessing an opera within an opera, a work in progress, so to speak, on the stage at OTSL. And this work within the work is wonderful and engrossing. The stage design is perfect and alive and beautiful, and the entire cast of Strauss’s work are engaging and on point.

The Composer learns, as we all must, that life requires a good deal of compromise and tact. Zerbinetta assists him with this project, though even she has a great deal of loneliness and depths of soul as the opera (again, within the opera) unfolds. Any music-lover should attend OTSL’s “Ariadne On Naxos” not only for the sights and wonderful sounds, but for a lesson, often learned the hard way, in humility.

I left the theater wondering if any endeavor of mine, shared or isolated, mattered all that much. And yes. Through a collectivity, OTSL has another hit, another great night in store for anyone who might attend. Just be prepared for an examination of conscience as the opera proceeds. Laugh at yourself, and laugh and cry along with a collectivity of faces and souls that are probably thinking similar things to you, dear artist.

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