An opera ahead of its time, Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos sports a postmodern theatrical attitude even though its music, written just before the outbreak of World War I, is decidedly modernist. Intended first as an appendage to a one-act adaptation of Moliere’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme by longtime Strauss collaborator Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera was lengthened with a prologue when Strauss wanted to fill an entire evening bill. The solution was a stroke of genius: the prologue, filled with backstage bickering, sets the stage for the opera within the opera–a tale from Greek mythology of love betrayed and rekindled–to be presented in an aristocrat’s castle. This plot scheme enabled Strauss and his librettist to create various layers of meaning. The frivolous Zerbinetta is contrasted with the noble Ariadne; her fun-seeking troupers intrude on the somber make-believe of the traditional opera by commenting on the impossible ideals it espouses. At Ariadne’s core is a battle royale between commedia dell’arte and opera seria, between populist entertainment and high art. Strauss doesn’t cast judgment but uses the opportunity to compose ravishing and psychologically telling music in both styles. (In his own career, he zigzagged between the intense psychodrama of Elektra and the Mozartean wit and wisdom of Der Rosenkavalier.) Ariadne, indeed, boasts some of the most entrancing arias and ensembles for singers of all vocal ranges. The cast for this Chicago Opera Theater production includes veterans and newcomers culled from the best of the region’s opera pool: Ariadne is sung by soprano Judith Raddue, Zerbinetta by coloratura specialist Lorraine Ernest, Bacchus (who sweeps Ariadne away) by heldentenor Carl Tanner, and the Composer (a trouser role) by mezzo Janine Hawley. COT’s Carl Ratner directs; Bruce Hangen conducts. Friday, 7:30 PM, Sunday, 3 PM, and Thursday and next Saturday, June 15, 7:30 PM, Merle Reskin Theatre, 60 E. Balbo; 292-7578. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.