Follow the thread
ARIADNE AUF NAXOS
Composer Richard Strauss and his most frequent librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, began their work together with a piece drawn from Greek antiquity. Hofmannsthal, a precocious poet and then a playwright, had produced a free adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra in 1903, and by 1909 Strauss had turned it into the opera Elektra, an Expressionistic achievement filled with the anguish the ancient Greek tragedians could seize so well. It launched their historic collaboration of 23 years, which gave rise to six operas: following Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne auf Naxos (1912/1916), Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Die ägyptische Helena (1928), and Arabella (1933). (A seventh, Die Liebe der Danae, counted a Hofmannsthal plot draft among its sources.)
Classical antiquity would continue to interest them as team. Die ägyptische Helena, for example, involves Helen of Troy and is set partly on a Mediterranean island. Another strand of their work together focused on aesthetic collision: what happens when competing kinds of art (high vs. low, grand vs. trivial) are brought together, or, by extension, when conflicts are engendered by inherent differences of age, social class, or aspirations. Both of these Strauss-Hofmannsthal leitmotifs are at work in Ariadne auf Naxos. Here two stories are woven together. One is a Classical tale. This opera contains an opera based on the myth of Ariadne. She has eloped to the Aegean island of Naxos with her boyfriend Theseus, whom she had previously helped navigate the Labyrinth (providing him with a thread that would let him find his way back) and slay the Minotaur. But he deserts her on Naxos while she is sleeping. We encounter her as she wakes up, apprehends that he has left her, bemoans her fate, thinks she sees him returning, decides instead that
it is a different God coming to shepherd her to death, and only gradually realizes it is actually Bacchus, who is to be her new lover (and, according to some tellings of the Greek myth, may have been her husband before she ran off with Theseus). In short, it is one of those Classical operas that is more situational than plotdriven, a species that was dear to composers of opera
seria and that can try the patience of modern viewers. The other strand of this Strauss-Hofmannsthal opera involves a troupe of commedia dell’arte players, representing the antithesis of Classically inspired
opera seria. The richest man in Vienna has arranged for the opera to be performed at his mansion, where he is also going to have a light farce given by the comedy players. A twist of circumstances leads to a seemingly incompatible situation: Both pieces must be played at the same time, somehow interlocking, as soon as his dinner has ended.
The people involved in the operatic production are outraged when they learn of this in the first act. In the second, the opera goes on, but the comic actors insert themselves into the operatic plot, trying to cheer up the distraught heroine and so on. Viewers have to stay alert to keep up with Ariadne auf Naxos. One of the complications is that two of the principal roles are bifurcated. The distraught heroine is actually two characters — the abandoned Ariadne and the prima donna who is playing that part. Similarly, we meet her male counterpart as both the tenor who is cast to sing with her and as her eventual lover Bacchus, the role he assumes in the opera. Of the major parts, only Zerbinetta, the leading comedienne, carries through to both halves of the piece without reinventing herself. One is grateful to her for adding so much good cheer to the work, but one might say that the most sympathetic character of all is the Composer, who appears only in the Prologue. This, of course, is the role Strauss related to personally. He knew firsthand the frustration a composer might encounter when caught between the competing forces of artistic integrity and real-world practicality.
Even Strauss and Hofmannsthal had trouble putting together the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. Originally, they planned it as part of an evening that would be part play and part opera. The play was Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (in Hofmannsthal’s German translation as Der Bürger aus Edelmann), performed complete, with incidental music supplied by Strauss — and then that was to be followed by the pair’s operatic setting of Ariadne auf Naxos. Thus was it premiered in 1912, in a production that ran five hours and that audiences overwhelmingly disliked. After much rethinking, restructuring, and rewriting, Strauss and Hofmannsthal unveiled their new version of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Vienna Hofoper in October 1916 — the version performed today, in which the first act (officially labeled the Prologue) documents the mounting tension prior to the performance and the second (called the Opera) is the performance of the opera itself, with incursions from the comedians.
Four summers ago, Santa Fe Opera presented a double bill of an adaptation of Mozart’s comical Der
Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) and Stravinsky’s more dramatic Le rossignol (The Nightingale), with some singers playing parts in both operas. To a certain degree, that prefigured the structure, and maybe a bit of the flavor, of Ariadne auf Naxos, but of that double bill it is Der Schauspieldirektor that seems most relevant to Strauss’ opera, for historical reasons. Some of our readers may recall the circumstances of that work’s premiere performance. In February 1786, Joseph II, the ruler of the Habsburg dominions of Austria, threw a spectacular party at his imperial palace at Schönbrunn, in Vienna, on the occasion of a visit from his sister and her husband, who were his Habsburg equivalents in the Netherlands. The only part of the palace warm enough to accommodate the substantial crowd during the winter was the palace Orangerie, where a dinner for 82 was served in the middle of the room.
As soon as dinner ended, the room was rearranged, and, to quote the Minutes of Court Ceremonies, his Majesty with the guests repaired to one of the theatres set up at the end of the Orangerie, the entire table was removed from the building; and at once the whole length of the Parterre on both sides was brilliantly illuminated. Whereupon his Majesty with his guests repaired to the theatre erected at the other end of the Orangerie, where a German play with arias intermingled was performed. When this was finished, the entire company repaired to the theatre at the other end, where an Italian singspiel was at once performed. The first of these, the German piece, was Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor; the second, the “Italian singspiel,” was Salieri’s Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the Music, then the Words). Scenes from various popular plays were apparently interpolated along the way, such that the artistic portion of the celebration showcased the complementary branches of Joseph II’s theatrical establishment — German opera, Italian opera, and “straight theatre.” The whole event lasted five hours, just as the original Der Bürger aus
Edelmann/Ariadne auf Naxos pairing had. That Salieri piece is invoked as an inspiration for what would be Strauss’ last opera, Capriccio, an eveninglong dialogue about whether words or music are the dominant force in an opera. But one may wonder if Der Schauspieldirektor can have exerted an analogous influence on Ariadne auf Naxos, which echoes its story of the posturing and temperamental behavior that may surface when an opera is in preparation. Strauss was well aware of the emotions that could be unleashed backstage. He was married to a temperamental soprano, Pauline de Ahna; in fact, he proposed — and she accepted — while she was in mid-tantrum during a rehearsal of Tannhäuser he was conducting. (They remained married for 55 years, until his death.) What’s more, Strauss was a devoted Mozartian, earning acclaim for his conducting of Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte, and even that bit of Mozartian juvenilia Bastien und Bastienne. He led recordings of Mozart’s last three symphonies and the Overture to Die Zauberflöte, which we can listen to still today.
He never conducted Der Schauspieldirektor, so far as I know, but he undoubtedly knew of the piece — which, by coincidence, opened in a production at the Vienna Volksoper in February 1916, just eight months before the new and improved Ariadne auf Naxos was unveiled at that city’s Hofoper, perhaps two miles distant. Of course, Strauss and Hofmannsthal had set their course on Ariadne auf Naxos years earlier, so that Mozart production cannot have influenced the fundamental conception of their piece. Nonetheless, the circumstances of Der Schauspieldirektor’s premiere at Schönbrunn in 1786 may have been known to them. The fact that they developed a two-pieces-inone-room opera on their own is certainly possible, but the coincidence is striking. At least for regulars at Santa Fe Opera, the correlation provides a thread for them to follow, Theseus-like, as they wind through the labyrinth of their own experiences of opera. ◀
Büste Richard Strauss, circa 1908, by Hugo Lederer