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ARI­ADNE AUF NAXOS

Pasatiempo - - PASA REVIEWS - Mu­sic by Richard Strauss. Li­bretto by Hugo von Hof­mannsthal. Pre­miere of re­vised pro­duc­tion: Court Opera, Vi­enna, Oct. 4, 1916. Sung in English and Ger­man. James M. Keller

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

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