Opera in 1 act
Libretto: Hugo von Hofmannsthal
First performed: Hoftheater Stuttgart, 25 October 1912, as a 30-minute accompaniment to Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Revised version: Vienna State Opera, 4 October 1916.
“The thirty-minute opera for small chamber orchestra … is as good as complete in my head,” Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Viennese playwright and Strauss’s librettist for the smash-hits Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, told his collaborator. “It is called Ariadne auf Naxos and is made up of a combination of heroic mythological figures in 18th-century costume … and, interwoven in it, characters from the commedia dell’arte … representing the buffo element which is throughout interwoven with the heroic…”
(in Michael Kennedy, The Master Musicians: Richard Strauss, J.M. Dent, 1988)
Hofmannsthal intended that the little opera would come at the end of Der Bürger als Edelmann, his adaptation of Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The combination of play and opera, however, was not to the public taste, and left its Stuttgart audience unsatisfied. “The playgoing public,” Strauss wrote, “had no wish to listen to opera, and vice versa. The proper cultural soil for this pretty hybrid was lacking.”
The pair decided to rescue the opera. Hofmannsthal replaced the Molière play with a light-hearted look at backstage travails, and revised the Ariadne opera. Strauss composed the new sections while working on Die Frau ohne Schatten, their massive fusion of The Magic Flute with Wagner and Jung.
The second Ariadne was not a success at first, but has gradually become one of the second-tier Strauss operas, performed throughout the world.
An excellent early example of dissatisfaction with a package holiday to Greece. Ariadne arrives on Naxos only to find that she doesn’t get on with any of the other guests, all of whom are considerably lower class. Worse still, her hotel room is little better than a cave, and is beset by an irritating echo. Eventually she enjoys a holiday romance with J. S. Bach, who is so drunk on his own wine that he mistakes her for Mary Magdalene. As they leave the island, the lower classes continue their revels. The opera is controversial, in that many believe the attribution to Strauss is wrong, and that there are significant clues in the prologue that the opera was in fact written by another composer entirely. However, it must be noted that Strauss’s initial impetus for the composition of this work was to fill a commission by the twentieth-century budget recording company of the same name (Naxos).
The richest man in Vienna is giving a party. To entertain his guests, he’s commissioned a new opera (Ariadne), hired a commedia dell’arte troupe, and, to round the evening off with a bang, fireworks at 9 p.m. sharp. Music and fireworks? He must be crackers. The performers certainly think so; neither the opera singers nor Zerbinetta and her clowns want to share the stage. But they’ll have to. Their employer has another brainwave: perform both acts simultaneously. The Composer, a high-minded youth, is horrified, but is brought round by Zerbinetta’s charms.
The opera: Ariadne auf Naxos
Ariadne has been dumped – literally. Theseus stranded her on Naxos on the voyage back from Crete. Ariadne has sunk into a deep depression, possibly gone catatonic, and wants to die.
And the harlequins only add to her misery. Zerbinetta tries to cheer her up by singing a showstopper virtuoso coloratura aria, but Ariadne prefers to sulk in her cave.
Good news! Bacchus (=Dionysus) arrives, fresh from his encounter with Circe on Aeaea. She’s the kind of enchantress who turns men into swine, and Bacchus is still slightly confused by the female sex. He thinks Ariadne’s another sorceress, while she thinks he’s Mercury, come to conduct her to the underworld. Longing for death, she boards his boat, but both are transformed by love. “Each man comes as a god,” says Zerbinetta.
Strauss was the last living opera composer to be truly popular. He saw himself as heir to the tradition of Mozart and Wagner – but identified himself more as the Offenbach of the twentieth century: a gifted writer of comic opera, a master of pastiche and parody, more interested in people than abstractions.
Ariadne auf Naxos, a clever little work, is his first opera about the artform itself. He had already shown his skill with pastiche in the waltzes and Italian arias of Der Rosenkavalier, but in Ariadne he pays playful homage to the last two centuries of opera, and brings them together as an opera seria cum buffo with a Wagnerian climax.
He runs all the way from eighteenth-century opera seria in its treatment of Greek myth, through to Wagner with the arrival of Bacchus, a Heldentenor like Tristan or Siegfried. The buffo music is Mozartian; and the clever, practical Dancing Master is both a Figaro (Mozart or Rossini), and the model for Schneidebart the Barber in Die schweigsame Frau.
Ariadne also looks at the practicalities of putting on an opera, an expensive, complex form whose patrons may not appreciate it. The wealthy host is the type of all the aristocrats – the Esterhazys, the Archbishop of Salzburg – for whom music was a pleasant aid to digestion. Strauss draws the backstage world with knowledge – the petty squabbles and egos, the jockeying for position, the last-minute changes of plan, and the determination to create something wonderful from fractious human clay.
Strauss wasn’t keen on the new Prologue – “I have an innate antipathy to all artists treated in plays and novels, and especially composers, poets and painters,” he told Hofmannsthal – but it opened a fruitful vein for his own works. The scene is through-composed, but utterly unWagnerian in its easy, conversational naturalism. And it set Strauss thinking. “I hope to move forward wholly into the realm of unWagnerian emotional and human comic opera,” he told Hofmannsthal. While composing Ariadne, he suggested “an entirely modern, absolutely realistic domestic and character comedy”: the work that would become Intermezzo. The Prologue also looks forward to Die schweigsame Frau and Capriccio, comic operas touching on performers’ private lives.
Ariadne‘s score is also a departure for Strauss. His previous operas had required massive orchestral forces. “Louder! Louder!” Strauss famously quipped while rehearsing Elektra; “I can still hear the singers!” No danger of drowning out the voice here; Ariadne is almost a chamber opera. Because it was originally performed in a theatre, Strauss scored the work for only 36 musicians. The clarity and intimacy of Strauss’s orchestration make it one of his most immediately appealing scores.
And it’s beautifully written for the voice, too; the Composer and Ariadne both have the lyrical effusions for the female voice which were, as for Massenet, a trademark, while Zerbinetta’s “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, modelled on Herold’s “Jours de mon enfance” (Le Pré-aux-clercs, 1832), is a soprano vocal showpiece as technically demanding as anything in Italian bel canto.
The opera is also, like Strauss’s mature operas, humane. It argues for engagement with, and pragmatism in, an imperfect world, rather than impractical idealism or debilitating emotional self-indulgence. But here composer and librettist came to loggerheads over the work’s meaning.
Hofmannsthal believed the work was about “the encounter of spiritual and material worlds: brought together in non-comprehension” (quoted in Peter Conrad, A Song of Love and Death: The Meaning of Opera, 1987) . Strauss preferred the material to the spiritual; he was more taken with the lamentably “earth-bound” Zerbinetta than Ariadne, symbol of human solitude. Hofmannsthal, annoyed, sent him a stern letter full of phrases like “the monologue of a lonely soul” and “Death and Life at once”.
Ariadne and the Composer are Hofmannsthalian creations. Ariadne retreats from life to dwell on her sorrow; the Composer distances himself from it: “I have nothing in common with this world. Why live in it?” Ariadne must learn how to love and trust, the Composer how to compromise. The Composer is young, of course, and inexperienced – an idealist, probably still in his teens – with an adolescent’s tendency to emote, and think in all-or-nothing terms.
Strauss gives them both beautiful music – but his sympathies lie more with Zerbinetta, loveable and practical. Hofmannsthal may have thought Ariadne was the focus, but, as Strauss recognized, the audience likes Zerbinetta more. Ariadne may dominate the stage physically, but a Zerbinetta worth her salt steals the show. She’s human, sympathetic, quick-witted, good-humored, enjoys being alive – and punctures pretentiousness.
While the Composer waffles on about Bacchus winning his godhead, and transfiguration through love, Zerbinetta reassures him: “Courage! Common sense will bring you down to earth from those heights!”
Ariadne longs for death, but she is, as Zerbinetta recognises, simply going through a bad break-up. “Death! That’s what they say. Of course, she means another lover.”
And, in the end, she’s right. The opera finishes with a rapturous quasi-Wagnerian duet of transfiguration – but Zerbinetta is watching from the wings, to bring the gods back to humanity.
- Hildegard Hillebrecht (Ariadne), Sena Jurinac (Composer), Reri Grist (Zerbinetta), Jess Thomas (Bacchus), and Paul Schöffler (Music Master), with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm. Salzburg, 1965. DVD: ORF, TDK.
- Gundula Janowitz (Ariadne), Trudelise Schmidt (Composer), Edita Gruberova (Zerbinetta), Rene Kollo (Bacchus), and Walter Berry (Music Master), with the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Karl Böhm. Salzburg, 1977-78. DVD: Deutsche Grammophon.
- Jessye Norman (Ariadne), Tatiana Troyanos (Composer), Kathleen Battle (Zerbinetta), James King (Bacchus), and Franz Ferdinand Nentwig (Music Master), with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. New York, 1988. DVD: Deutsche Grammophon.
- Deborah Voigt (Ariadne), Suzanne Mentzer (Composer), Natalie Dessay (Zerbinetta), Richard Margison (Bacchus), and Wolfgang Brendel (Music Master), with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra conducted by James Levine. New York, 2003. DVD: Virgin Classics.
- Elizabeth Schwarzkopf (Ariadne), Irmgard Seefried (Composer), Rita Streich (Zerbinetta), Rudolf Schock (Bacchus), and Karl Dönch (Music Master), with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan. London, 1954. CD: Membrans.
- Jessye Norman (Ariadne), Julia Varady (Composer), Edita Gruberova (Zerbinetta), Paul Frey (Bacchus), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (Music Master), with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur. Lepizig, 1988. CD: Phillip.
- Deborah Voigt (Ariadne), Anne Sofie von Otter (Composer), Natalie Dessay (Zerbinetta), Ben Heppner (Bacchus), and Albert Dohmen (Music Master), with the Dresdner Staatskapelle conducted by Giuseppe Sinopoli. Dresden, 2000. CD: Deutsche Grammophon.