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Preview: Virginia Opera's “Ariadne auf Naxos”

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Two hours might be the beginning of Oscar-bait territory when it comes to film, but for opera, it’s relatively short.

As concise as Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos” might be, it was originally much shorter. Initially, the work was performed as a brief opera attached to a 1912 play by librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Four years later, Strauss and Hofmannsthal expanded it into the version Virginia Opera is staging this weekend at Richmond Centerstage.

The show opens with performers readying to put on an opera and a burlesque show at the home of the richest man in Vienna. The entertainers are then informed that instead of performing the pieces separately, they must integrate the opera and burlesque shows together. This is followed by an opera-within-an-opera of the show they have been preparing.

“It’s a quirky opera,” says director Sam Helfrich. “The first act plays out like a sitcom. It’s got a screwball comedy kind of feel to it.”

To help audiences better engage with the show, this production has set the first act in modern times and will perform it in English. The opera portion will be performed in its original German.

“Naturally, it’s going to feel more familiar and immediate if everyone’s talking in English,” Helfrich says.

In this work, Strauss and Hofmannsthal humorously explore the need for arts patronage and the rivalry between high and low art. “That’s the big fight: what kinds of art are more valuable than others.”

Soprano Christina Pier has dual roles in the show, portraying the prima donna in the “prologue” and Ariadne in the “opera.” “It’s a lot of fun to play the diva. I get to have a prima donna fit on stage,” Pier says. “[The show has] some of the most gorgeous music I think I’ve sung to date. What’s really brilliant about how Strauss writes is the music is very different depending on the character.”

Ric Furman, who portrays both the roles Tenor and Bacchus, says he loves the rich lines and melodies of Strauss’ music. “His orchestrations are probably what he was most-renowned for,” Furman says. “It’s these really dramatic lines and intonations that make Strauss such a great mood writer. He could just sit down and write something and you just know what he’s trying to convey.”

As beautiful as the music is, Furman says it’s the humor that will probably most surprise audiences.

“I don’t think people will be expecting to laugh out loud as much as they will when they see the show,” Furman says. “My hope is that many first-time operagoers will give this one a chance.”

Virginia Opera’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” plays Friday and Sunday at Richmond Centerstage. For more information call 1-866-OPERA-VA or visit vaopera.org.

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