In his correspondence with Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the high-minded librettist of "Ariadne auf Naxos," had to keep reminding the composer that the opera was ultimately about fidelity. Fidelity to art and, above all, to love. The medium-minded Strauss never quite got that virtue, however. He devotedly loved his difficult wife and difficult operas, no doubt. Still, he remained the kind of man who was happy to rush through a conducting job when a mistress was waiting and a train had to be caught.
Not getting it is what makes "Ariadne," in which the real world impinges upon unrealistic ideals of opera and romance, such a joy. If sublime music and sublime love can't entirely triumph over casual sex and outright silliness, maybe on some level they can coexist.
Sustaining such a delicate, whimsical, morally ambivalent coexistence is the problem every director of this curious opera faces. In many productions these days, particularly in sophisticated Europe, raw sex wins out. But Los Angeles Opera, in the flamboyantly farcical new production by William Friedkin that was unveiled Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, takes a more PG tack. Go ahead, bring the kids.
Friedkin, the veteran film director, works nonstop to entertain his audience. But all his recurrent bits of slapstick and shtick create a balancing act of their own, tipping the opera toward caricature and reminding us that when Hollywood laughs at itself, as it sometimes does in this production, it still wants to make money. If the happy audience response Sunday was any indication, L.A. Opera has a moneymaker on its hands. I imagine tickets for this production will be in demand, at least for those who like their opera frivolous. I wish I could get on board.
The conceit of "Ariadne," and what makes it such a fascinating experiment, is that the richest man in Vienna commissions an opera from a serious young composer for a private entertainment and then dictates the terms. Wanting something more sumptuous than an ancient Greek drama about a humorless princess waiting for her hero on a desert island, the patron decides that an irreverent commedia dell'arte troupe is needed to spice up the action.
The troupe's coquettish comedienne, Zerbinetta, offers unsolicited advice on love to the incensed composer in the prologue, which takes place backstage in the patron's house, and to Ariadne on her desert island in the opera proper.
In this case, the house is that of a Hollywood mogul. The set by Edwin Chan, one of Frank Gehry's design partners, is a lavish Gehry-style mansion. And in what has become an operatic staging cliche, everyone is a Hollywood type. Zerbinetta enters in tight leather pants, carries a riding crop and has a bit of fun with a highway patrolman and his handcuffs. The onstage composer could be a naive, nerdy screenwriter.
On the cartoonish desert island set, the members of the commedia dell'arte troupe are a cross between the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, ever goofy with their beach toys. Ariadne and Bacchus are parodies of opera singers, and whatever magic they can't produce in their exquisite love duet at the end -- which is meant to musically transform the island and its idiotic inhabitants into the embodiment of divine and sensual love -- is replaced by extravagant lighting and fireworks.
Even though Strauss wrote enthralling music for Ariadne, Zerbinetta -- who for all her sexy sass is capable of sincere love -- seems to have been closest to his heart, and she was clearly closest to Friedkin's. The Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova proved playful to a fault, but she dazzled nonetheless in her extravagant coloratura aria. She so dazzled, in fact, that Petra-Maria Schnitzer's competently sung Ariadne fell flat in comparison. The role of Bacchus is a thankless, stilted one that Peter Seiffert didn't manage to bring to life, and it didn't help that he was dressed to look like an Aegean Elvis. Lioba Braun, the composer in the prologue, also had trouble extracting rapture out of awkwardness.
But the many comic parts, including Georg-Martin Bode in the spoken role of the Major-domo, were expertly carried off with the over-the-top aplomb the production asked for. And the ensemble work both onstage and from the chamber orchestra in the pit was superb throughout thanks to Kent Nagano's gorgeously shaded conducting.
In the end, the quality of that ensemble work, the sheer dedication of cast and instrumentalists, may have best presented the enduring message of "Ariadne": Love, life, putting on opera -- everything -- is really complicated, so get used to it, and do the best you can.
'Ariadne auf Naxos'
Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Sept. 22, 25 and 29; 2 p.m. Saturday and Oct. 2
Price: $25 to $190
Contact: (213) 365-3500, (213) 972-8001