Sometimes the play within a play is the play.
Or, in the case of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos, the opera within the opera.
Let's start with the play. Strauss's 1912 opera was originally conceived as the postlude to a play, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme by Molière. It's a play in which a middle class guy, the bourgeois, tries to move up the social ranks to become a gentleman, schooling himself in the aristocratic arts: fencing, dancing, philosophy, and, of course, music. The incidental music was supposedly written by the music teacher's other student, although IRL it was composed by JB Lully.
Richard Strauss was approached by his longtime collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal to write the music and a little Nachspiel, based on events in the play, which then grew into the Ariadne that we have today. After a poor response—"The playgoing public did not get its money's worth and the opera public did not know what to make of the Molière."—Strauss recontextualized the opera. Omitting the lengthy theatrical preamble, he created a 40-minute prologue to situate the action: We are at the home of the richest man in Vienna; a serious opera and a light commedia are scheduled for after-dinner entertainment, which is to the chagrin of both troupes. Somehow, both are upstaged by the rigid fireworks schedule, which means that both must be performed at the same time.
A little contrived, even for opera, but not fatally so.
Somehow, in the midst of all the chaos, there are some wonderfully endearing arias, making for very real characters in a surreal situation. Lyric's production maintains that precarious balance of comedy and tragedy, high and low brow.
With all due respect to the singers, the most memorable part of the production was the set. The opera being an opera within an opera, it needed a stage on stage on which the troupes would deliver their performance within the performance. But it also needed a backstage. In the blink of an eye, the stage could transform itself from front-facing to back-facing.
Then there are 3 great soprano roles: the Composer (mezzo Alice Coote, stellar in a pants role), the Prima Donna/Ariadne (relative newcomer Amber Wagner), and the comédienne, Zerbinetta (Anna Christy). If it were a competition between the sopranos, which it always is, Ms. Coote would win, 2nd to Ms. Christy, and 3rd Ms. Wagner. Ms. Coote infused the young composer with believable zeal, apt for a young idealist. Ms. Christy was an interesting choice for Zerbinetta, lighter and blonder than I would have expected, but sang the coloratura role with ease, singing Grossmächtige Prinzessin with almost no flaws.
Ms. Wagner was filling in for Debra Voigt who retired from the role about a year ago. An alumna of the Ryan Center (Lyric's training program), she sang her first Ariadne a year ago in Canada. As such, though I wasn't as wowed by her as some reviewers, she has plenty of room to grow.
The more I think about it, the more the opera grows on me. It distracts you with one ridiculous hand while the other touches your heart.
Recommended with gusto