• Ariadne auf Naxos - A Missed Opportunity?

    Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos floundered in the wake of the composer's greatest popularity. After the musically groundbreaking Salome (1905) and Elektra (1909) and the wildly successful comic masterpiece Der Rosenkavalier (1911), Ariadne (1912) was a major disappointment. And though today the opera has its fervent admirers, it still marks the beginning of Strauss’s decades-long decline in popularity and musical relevance.

    In one sense, Ariadne might have seemed like an unpromising project from the beginning. Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal originally presented a ninety-minute one-act version as an afterpiece to a production of Moliere’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. But the evening ended up six hours long; people who came to see the opera were left impatient with the play (and vice versa). Later Strauss and Hofmannsthal reshaped the opera, detaching it from Moliere’s play and adding a prologue to set up the action. But it still proved less than wholly successful, bearing the taint of a work cobbled together after an initial failure.

    Yet in another sense, there was always tremendous potential in this material, such that perhaps it could have been Strauss’s greatest creation. The story features two theatrical companies forced by their wealthy employer to share the stage simultaneously. Two incompatible performances are thrown together: a high-brow opera on the mythological Ariadne abandoned on a deserted island by her lover Theseus, and a low comic romp about the flirty Zerbinetta and her bumptious wooers. Thus Ariadne is a fascinating juxtaposition of tragic and comic, innocence and experience, Greek mythology and European commedia dell'arte, and (from an operatic standpoint) German high seriousness and Italian buffo. All on the theme of love, loss, and loving again--the “astonishing surprise” that the heart, even when broken, can find new life and move on.

    So what keeps this fascinating work from being accepted among the very first rank of operas? I would maintain that there is a structural problem brought about by the piece's two different sections--though not necessarily in the way many would expect.

    The Prologue is all bustle and backstage banter. There is little in the way of sustained musical showpieces; instead Strauss devotes most of this section to the kind of fluid, mercurial recitative he had developed so successfully in Der Rosenkavalier. We enjoy the absurd but delightful premise: because of the whims of a rich patron (and his desire to have the whole evening’s entertainment over with before a planned fireworks display), a deeply tragic opera and a slapstick comic entertainment must somehow be presented simultaneously.

    The central figure in this section, a character created specifically for the added Prologue, is the Composer. He provides the necessary outrage at the forced merging of two incompatible works--his high-minded opera and the low comic commedia skit. Young, idealistic, painfully sensitive (a bit like another great Straussian trouser role, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier), he is the butt of humor for both the characters onstage and the audience. But he is also an attractive figure for those very same excesses, and his ardent zeal manages to bring out a softer, more vulnerable side of the worldly Zerbinetta. We can see this scene nicely played in the Met production featuring Susan Mentzer and the (always extraordinary) Natalie Dessay:



    This is the kind of interaction between two worlds--high and low, serious and comic--that gives an added depths to characters from either side of the divide. By the Prologue's end, we are intrigued by the promise that these two incompatible worlds will continue to collide, producing a chemical chain reaction with potentially explosive results.

    The Opera proper--the original material that Strauss and Hofmannsthal had in mind to present in the first place--should be the culmination of this promise. And indeed, it has some of the work's greatest and most memorable moments, including Zerbinetta's extended aria "Grossmächtige Prinzessin," one of the longest, greatest, and most challenging coloratura showpieces in the repertoire. We also have Ariadne’s beautiful sad laments, the lovely harmonies of a trio of nymphs, and the catchy bantering of the performing troupe.

    But for the most part, these are a series of wonderful set pieces. After the jostling backstage activity of the Prologue and expectations set up there, we might look for a more electrically charged interaction. These two wildly different attitudes should impinge sharply on one another as they come together, with fascinating results both broadly comic and touchingly heartfelt. Maybe we will see what Zerbinetta has to teach Ariadne, or what Ariadne has to teach Zerbinetta. But the two worlds remain stubbornly distanced from one another, with Ariadne unable (or unwilling) to see efforts to cheer her up made right in front of her face.

    The problem with the second half is crystallized in the fact that the Composer, so central to the Prologue, does not appear in the Opera proper. The intriguing possibilities between him and Zerbinetta early on are not explored any further, and no interaction of comparable complexity occurs in the second half. Some directors, aware of this problem, make the Composer a silent presence throughout the Opera performance, in an attempt to tie together the work's two sections and to better frame the action. We can see this strategy in these highlights from Robert Carsen's highly regarded Munich production, featuring Diana Damrau and Adrianne Pieczonka.



    Still, as effective as such devices may be, the very need to resort to them suggests the opera's structural problems. And while productions try to introduce various other types of additional byplay between the two realms, in the end neither sphere is strongly affected by the other.

    Ultimately, the two worlds move along parallel lines, without touching or altering one another. At the curtain, Ariadne goes off with Bacchus, the god who comes to her rescue, while Zerbinetta, off to one side, quietly reiterates her view that new love is always an astonishing surprise. It is a poignant moment, attesting to some common ground between the opera's two spheres. But they nonetheless remain separate, the gulf between them never bridged. The two spheres shed light on one another thematically, but never fully take spark dramatically.

    Perhaps, to some extent, it could not be otherwise. Maybe the opera represents two attitudes to life that must (and should) remain irreconcilable. But even as Ariadne sails away on her new voyage, ending one of Strauss’s most beguiling entertainments, we may be left with a sense of a great, elusive mystery that the opera, for all its beauties, has not fully encompassed. Ultimately, Ariadne remains, in effect, on her island--beautiful, compelling, but sadly incomplete.
    This article was originally published in forum thread: Ariadne auf Naxos - A Missed Opportunity? started by DrMike View original post


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