Richard Strauss’ off-kilter opera receives a decidedly peculiar staging in this Zurich Opera production. Claus Guth’s interpretation places the prologue, which is supposed to take place in a Vienna millionaire’s mansion, before massive curtains on an empty stage. The rival entertainers, a chamber opera production and a burlesque troupe, flit in and out amidst the curtains upon learning they are supposed to work together, rather than separately, as part of the evening’s entertainment. The opera itself, a reworking of the myth of Ariadne, is staged in a meticulous reproduction of Kronenhalle, the famed Zurich restaurant.

Quite frankly, this modernized approach creates major distractions – the prologue looks like opera on the cheap while the Ariadne drama and its rumination on isolation and loneliness is totally at odds with the splendor of the intricate set design. Even worse, the updated characterizations (the nymphs become waitresses, the clowns busboys, etc.) result in an ensemble which falls back repeatedly on shtick-heavy antics rather than the genuine elements of farce and tragedy that Strauss’ librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, envisioned for the work.

However, the production is singlehandedly saved by Emily Magee’s stunning star turn as Ariadne. Offering uncommon glamour and a complex interpretation of a woman drowning in self-destructive anguish, she gives the role a level of drama and gravity that resonates with subtle intelligence. When Magee is front and center, the production’s failed eccentricities are easily forgotten.

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