Best Opera That Also Serves as a Statement on Itself

Ariadne auf Naxos at the Washington National Opera
Recent seasons at the National Opera have prompted the usual questions. How much Donizetti can the masses handle? Can Plácido Domingo successfully juggle his roles as general director of opera houses in D.C. and L.A.? And: Marriage of Figaro? Again? This past November’s Ariadne auf Naxos rendered those quibbles irrelevant. Here we had an opera that addressed the concerns of whether “serious opera” could be funny, and whether comic opera could be taken seriously, the answer to both rhetorical questions provided by the outsize Wagnerianisms of the reduced pit orchestra and the final moments of the show, in which Zerbinetta’s comic profligacy and Ariadne’s tragic self-regard coalesce over one of the shimmeringest orchestrations in all of Strauss. The production may not have boasted the visual gluttony that drives PBS audiences wild, but the closing fireworks amplified the point: That spectacle, and a happy ending, can still bring a senior-discount audience to tears.