Ariadne auf Naxos was originally intended to be part of Arizona Opera's spring 2020 mainstage productions. After the delay, they brought it back this year for the fall instead, which means that it was at the smaller Herberger Theater instead of at Symphony Hall. The smaller venue felt fitting for this romp of an opera that hits a lighter note than some of the more melodramatic mainstage productions.
For the past several years, I have been diving into the opera having previously known almost nothing about it. I just started watching one, enjoyed it, and kept going. Rather than trying to learn more (other than reading the program and such), I've kept myself as a casual audience-goer. And I like it that way: it proves that you don't have to know the history of the composer or all the cultural nuances of the story to just go to a production and enjoy it. Sometimes you don't even have to know all the details of the plot.
Ariadne auf Naxos can be a slightly complicated storyline to follow: it's an opera within an opera. That is, the characters, after bickering about whether the comedy should go first or the opera, learn that they will have to perform them both simultaneously. So the two groups continue bickering, the opera set about how they have the higher art form and the comedy troupe about how the opera will put everyone to sleep. It becomes a bit of a philosophical debate between the two art forms. High art or pop culture? The arthouse film or the newest superhero movie? The tragedy or the comedy? What makes people cry or what makes them laugh?
Over the course of the production, we as the audience get to see a bit of both. We see comedy to make us laugh and we see sappy drama to stir us. It's actually quite nice, especially for a modern audience who may not be as used to two and a half hours of just sappy drama. The comedy does in fact keep your attention, but not without the benefit of enjoying the sappiness, as well. When the composer is describing his character to Zerbinetta of the comedy troupe, Zerbinetta suggests a simpler, more lighthearted approach--but he insists that "and then she succumbs to death," reveling in the drama of it. I can relate to that. Just put on Bright Star for me and I'll go on and on about the beautiful tragedy of John Keats. Ah, there's nothing like melodrama.
But there does come a point when we have to say that we ourselves are not John Keats tragically dying at a young age at the beginning of his poignant poetic career. So we do need a bit of Zerbinetta to pull us out of our melancholy, to make us smile and laugh and move forward instead of becoming stagnant. Tragedy happens and it's sad--but only by moving forward do we continue to live. The timing of Ariadne auf Naxos therefore is quite good. Its delay only emphasized the importance of that concept: let's keep on living.