Ariadne on Naxos contains some of composer Richard Strauss' most ravishingly beautiful music. With an original German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Ariadne on Naxos brings together slapstick comedy and consummately beautiful music in an exploration of the competition between high and low art for the public's attention. Opera fans (and first-timers!) will thrill to arias by the title character, Ariadne, and the spitfire Zerbinetta.
The production features Elizabeth Baldwin making her SummerFest debut in the title role of Ariadne, with Zerbinetta sung by Betsy Fischborn. Baldwin is the winner of the 2013 Mildred Miller International Voice Competition. Opera Theater music director Robert Frankenberry (seen last year in A Little Night Music) is Bacchus and Strauss' lush score is conducted by Brent McMunn.
"It’s hard to convey just how much fun, what an exhilarating theatrical experience is Summerfest’s “Ariadne on Naxos”... Jonathan Eaton’s lively, resourceful staging and Brent McMunn’s expert musical direction ... brings Richard Strauss’s all-too-rarely heard operatic masterpiece vividly to life. Opera Theater’s English-language production is an extraordinary accomplishment...."Robert Croan, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
|Librettist||Hugo von Hofmannsthal|
|English Translation||Tom Hammond|
|Scenic Design||Marie Yokoyama|
|Costume Designer||Cynthia Albert|
|Lighting Designer||Stevie Agnew|
|Assistant Director||Adam De Ros|
|Prima Donna/Ariadne||Elizabeth Baldwin|
|The Tenor/Bacchus||Robert Frankenberry|
|The Composer||Erika Hennings|
|The Music Master||Craig Priebe|
|The Dancing Master||Pierre Dehret|
|A Wig Maker||Xiaozhong Wang|
|A Lackey||Antonio Watts|
|An Officer||William Strom|
|The Major-Domo||Martin Giles|
|Billy Wayne Coakley|
|Katrina Van Haanen|
English Translation used by arrangement with The English National Opera Benevolent Fund
Orchestral reduction by Christopher Fecteau
"The audience...between the excellence of the orchestra, the many phenomenal voices, and the generally good staging, decided simply to give themselves up to the majesty of Strauss’s music, and gave the performance a remarkable ovation."Pittsburgh Stage
Ariadne on Naxos is in two parts, called the Prologue and the Opera. The first part shows the backstage circumstances leading up to the second part, which is in fact an opera within an opera.
At the home of the richest man in Vienna, preparations for an evening of music are under way. Two troupes of musicians and singers have arrived. One is a burlesque group, led by the saucy comedienne Zerbinetta. The other is an opera company, who will present an opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, the work of the Composer. The preparations are thrown into confusion by an announcement by the Major-domo. The dinner for the assembled guests has run longer than planned. Therefore both performances must take place at the same time as ordered and paid for. The performances must not run one minute later than scheduled, despite the late start, since at nine o'clock there will be fireworks in the garden.
At first, the impetuous young Composer refuses to discuss any changes to his opera. But his teacher, the Music Master, points out that his pay depends on accepting the situation, and counsels him to be prudent, and Zerbinetta turns the full force of her charm on him, so he drops his objections. The cast of the opera seria intrigue against each other, each demanding that his arias be not cut while the other performers' parts are cut instead. A dancing master introduces Zerbinetta into the plot, which she understands from her very own perspective, and she gets ready for the performance. The Composer realizes what he has assented to, plunges into despair and storms out.
Ariadne is shown abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, with no company other than the nymphs Naiad, Dryad, and Echo. Ariadne bewails her fate, mourns her lost love, and longs for death. Zerbinetta and her four companions from the burlesque group enter and attempt to cheer Ariadne by singing and dancing, but without success. In a sustained and dazzling piece of coloratura singing, Zerbinetta tells the Princess to let by-gones be by-gones and insists that the simplest way to get over a broken heart is to find another man. In a comic interlude, each of the clowns pursues Zerbinetta.
The nymphs announce the arrival of a stranger on the island. Ariadne thinks it is Hermes, the messenger of death, but it is the god Bacchus, who is under the spell of the sorceress Circe. At first they do not understand their mistaken identification of each other. Bacchus eventually falls in love with Ariadne, who agrees to follow him to the realm of death to search for Theseus. Bacchus promises to set her in the heavens as a constellation. Zerbinetta returns briefly to repeat her philosophy of love: when a new love arrives, one has no choice but to yield. The opera ends with a passionate duet sung by Ariadne and Bacchus.
Meet the Composer
[born Munich, 11 June 1864; died Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 8 Sept 1949]
Richard Strauss’ life spanned many political, cultural and technological changes. He was born into a musical family, although not the more famous Viennese Strauss one. His father, Franz, was an illegitimate child of Urban Strauss (of Bavaria) and the children were permitted to keep the Strauss name. Taking after his maternal relatives, Franz became a leading horn player in Germany and regularly played in the orchestra at Wagner’s Bayreuth Theater. Strauss and his sister Johanna were raised in a musical home — although Franz thought very little of Wagner’s music. Franz had married Joanna Pschorr, a member of a wealthy family of brewers, after a long courtship. Her family thought him far beneath her. Nonetheless, their home was a happy one and the children led untroubled lives. Strauss began studying piano and violin at a young age and on his own began composing. Through his schooling, he was granted access to the Munich court orchestra rehearsals which provided a wonderful opportunity to study instrumental music.
Despite his father’s efforts, Strauss soon heard the music of Wagner. At first he was unimpressed. As he wrote to his childhood friend, Ludwig Thuille, on the opera Siegfried, “I was bored stiff, I was quite frightfully bored, so horribly that I cannot even tell you.” However, in the summer of 1888, he heard Tristan und Isolde for the first time and was immediately enamored of the work. His devotion to Tristan lasted until his dying day. Before Strauss had his first great success in the opera house (Salome in 1905), he had achieved wide renown with his symphonic tone poems. After a trip to Italy in 1886, Strauss created what he called a first hesitant attempt at a new expressionist style of composition with his orchestral suite Aus Italien. The climate at the end of the nineteenth-century in Germany was one divided over the merits of the traditional voice in classical music (as epitomized by Brahms) versus the more avant-garde (as epitomized by Wagner and Liszt). In the conservative city of Munich, Strauss had been understood to be in the former camp, but with the premiere of Aus Italien, the view began to change. He himself was delighted with the uproar caused by the premier and took it as a sign of the importance of the music. In retrospect, the bulk of Strauss’ orchestral output seems to carry the romantic movement of the nineteenth-Century to its highest level — following the path of Brahms. Strauss’ devotion to program music, as exemplified in his tone poems, really was a way of placing a sound with every image and/or gesture in an experience or story. The result was masterful story-telling. Tone poems such as Macbeth, Don Juan, Till Eulenspiegel and Also sprach Zarathustra paint in picturesque detail the stories related to their titles.
The opera Salome is sometimes considered to be almost a tone poem with singers. The detailed orchestration captures the physical setting and the story, as well as the psychological profiles of the characters involved. Strauss was not eager to follow Salome with a similar work (preferring instead to tackle a comedy), but on librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's insistence, Elektra went forward. The two agreed on a contract whereby Hofmannsthal would receive 25% of the receipts from the work. As is the case with all the Hofmannsthal libretti, the text is full of subtlety and subtext that Strauss mined to their fullest. Following the success of Elektra, Strauss insisted again that he wanted to create a comedy; the two man began work shortly thereafter on Der Rosenkavalier.
With Rosenkavalier, Hofmannsthal wanted to give Strauss characters with the psychological interest of Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, Almaviva and the Countess from Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. After sketching out a scenario, Hofmannsthal proposed it to Strauss, to which Strauss replied that Hofmannsthal should proceed as quickly as possible and send the first act as soon as it was ready. For all the charm of Rosenkavalier, Strauss missed his mark of writing a light comedy; instead — in response to the depth of characters — he created a profoundly beautiful, touching and unique masterwork which has transcended both time and place.
Returning to the idea of a light comedy, Hofmannsthal proposed now a new combination of drama and music: the combination of a play and an opera in the same evening. The play would be Le bourgeois gentilhomme by Molière, which he would adapt as Der Bürger als Edelmann with incidental music by Strauss, followed by a linking scene to the evening’s second part, the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Strauss. Hofmannsthal had conceived the idea as a challenge for producer Max Reinhardt, but was horrified when Strauss fixed on Zerbinetta as a leading role in the second part. Zerbinetta was a character inspired by the Italian commedia dell’arte tradition and was perceived as low comedy by Hofmannsthal. As a whole, Ariadne highlights a major distinction between the collaborators: Hofmannsthal was an intellectual poet with an idealistic approach to his work; Strauss was a pragmatic man of the theater. In spite of their differences, Strauss became increasingly excited as he worked on his score, declaring it to be a “signpost” on a new road for comic opera. As the piece moved toward production in Stuttgart, casting became an issue because Reinhardt obtained permission for an entire theater company in Berlin to work under him with his company. Egos became bruised during the rehearsal period and at one point half of the stage staff left to work on another production. Nonetheless, the premiere went forward on October 25, 1911, with Strauss conducting. It was a disaster: the theater crowd was uninterested in the opera and opera fans were uninterested in the play. The king held fifty minute receptions between each of the acts (two acts of play and one of opera), which extended the evening to six hours. By the time the audience got to the opera, they were tired and ill-tempered. The piece was a failure for both composer and librettist.
Shortly after in Berlin, the subject of revisions were broached and it soon emerged that Hofmannsthal was considering cutting the entire Molière play and letting the opera stand alone with a yet-to-be-written prologue. In this new prologue the roles of the Composer and Dancing-Master would be introduced and developed in a background story to the opera performance.
Ariadne was laid to rest for a while, as Strauss was disinclined to pursue revisions. Instead, he turned to Die Frau ohne Schatten, in an attempt to encourage Hofmannsthal to focus on the completion of the libretto. Europe began to move toward war. Strauss was in Italy during the summer of 1914, when the Sarajevo assassination took place; in this typical self-centered view of politics, he regarded the war as little more than a nuisance. He set about composing Die Frau, and re-scored his Alpine Symphony for a very large orchestra. While awaiting the completion of Act Three, he cast about for something to occupy him. The perfect solution was the revision of Ariadne. With a planned opening in Vienna in October of 1916, he began to search for tenors to sing the role of the Composer. In a typically pragmatic gesture — and a terrible blow to Hofmannsthal — he decided to give the role to soprano Lola Artot de Padilla and proceeded to compose accordingly. He asked Hofmannsthal for a genuine solo piece in order to persuade Madame Artot to sing the role. Hofmannsthal was appalled at Strauss’ pure opportunism; he could not believe that Strauss would try to “prettify” this character, which he perceived as having an almost spiritual aura about him. Strauss ultimately gave in to Hofmannsthal about other matters in the piece (i.e. how the ending would play out), but held his ground on Mlle. Artot. He felt that only a woman could offer the appropriate youthful look combined with the vocal skill needed to portray the role.
The first performance of the revised Ariadne took place in Vienna with Lotte Lehman as the Composer and was not an immediate success. Its second-night performance in Berlin with Artot portraying the Composer was also not successful. The collaborators, so different from one another, the easy-going German composer with a ready joke at hand and the aloof Austrian poet with a stiff manner, began to argue about the piece. Hofmannsthal had never been happy with Zerbinetta’s music — though Strauss had lowered and shortened her aria from the first version to the second. Conflicts from other projects also resurfaced. Ultimately, Strauss wrote that he was excited by the human comedy that the prologue from Ariadne had shown him. He felt that this “un-Wagnerian” approach was the future of his work and he was grateful to Hofmannsthal for opening his eyes. Hofmannsthal replied to Strauss’ candor by offering to do whatever he could to bring about the composer’s objectives. Meanwhile, the war in Europe was taking its toll as Strauss was completing the third act of Die Frau. Ultimately, he would come to feel ambivalent about the third act because the world was changing so rapidly that by the time the opera was finished, he was much more interested in his new comic direction.
Though the second version of Ariadne had a rough start, it has gradually won a secure place in the repertory. The differences between Hofmannsthal and Strauss are readily apparent in any production, and reflect — in a certain sense — the heart of the piece: the playing out of a comedy and a tragedy simultaneously. Hofmannsthal had a great concern for the seriousness of the Ariadne legend and Strauss took great delight in the commedia dell’arte characters. Strauss found a perfect blending “mechanism” in the use of secco recitative (recitative accompanied only by a bass continue — in this case a piano), parlando dialogue (performing vocal music in the style of spoken dialogue) and bursts of melody — particularly in the Prologue. Strauss’ own experience in the theater surely informed his awareness of the characters who play out their backstage rivalries onstage. Throughout the Prologue, the major-domo continues as a speaking role to emphasize his connection to the philistine master of the house, who is demanding that the opera and commedia troupe play together. The blend of other musical styles emerges clearly toward the end of the Prologue in the scene with the Composer at first flirting with Zerbinetta in a parlando style, railing about his composition in a secco recitative, then bursting into a soaring hymn to the holy art of music.
Like the Prologue, the Opera is also a study in stylistic contrasts. Just as the theatrical style of the dramatic opera and the lighthearted commedia troupe are quite far apart, so is the music which Strauss creates to embody this contradiction. The beautiful lyricism of the mournful Ariadne is offset by the light, high coloratura vocalism of Zerbinetta, who vividly recalls several of her past lovers. In fact, Zerbinetta’s aria, “Grossmachtige Prinzessin,” has become a standard of the coloratura repertoire. The clowns, led by Harlequin, also have a lightness in their music, and cavort to a Straussian waltz. An interesting contrast built into the combination of musical style and meaning is that the light-hearted characters with the music in three-quarter time have the clearest, most pragmatic point of view; whereas Viennese society viewed the waltz as a dizzy, light retreat from a world of hard reality. At the same time, the characters of Ariadne and Bacchus are given earnestly dramatic music and they both suffer from a deluded world view: Ariadne perceives Bacchus as Hermes, the messenger of death, while Bacchus perceives Ariadne as a sorceress who will enchant him. Their whole love duet is based on this misunderstanding, which proves to be beneficial to both parties as the two lovers accept their unanticipated relationship. Zerbinetta offers her final comment about how a woman should surrender herself to a new god’s arrival.
Ariadne exists in such a wonderfully Viennese milieu in the manner with which it plays with the concept of the waltz and how it evokes elements of Mozart. Just like the servants who outwit their masters in Le nozze di Figaro, the lower-class characters in Ariadne have a clearer sense about life and love than the nobility and they could articulate it for the nobility, if they were only willing to listen.
Strauss’ operatic output is often considered to have peaked with Elektra and his successive operas were considered to have become increasingly banal. Unfortunately, this idea was based on the fact that atonal music was to have been the way of the future. In hindsight, it is easier to appreciate the different “problems” Hofmannsthal placed before Strauss in their five major works, and to understand the innovation with which Strauss set about solving them. Fortunately, Strauss’ influence as a conductor allowed him to bring about many productions of his works, thereby ensuring their place in the repertoire. Even as he addressed the question of which is more supreme — the words or the music — in his final work Capriccio, Strauss had already given the world fourteen varied operatic offerings as wonderful answers to that age-old question, which continuing generations of opera-goers continue to contemplate.
—Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago and author Philip Seward
Hugo von Hofmannsthal
[born Vienna, 1 Feb 1874; died Vienna, 15 July 1929]
Hugo von Hofmannsthal was born into a cultured Viennese family. As a young man, he created a steady stream of poetry and other literary works that gained him a wide reputation as a writer of great skill with a mastery of form.
He suffered a dry spell in his twenties after which he arrived at the ideal that a drama which presents life as it should be would inspire a cure for the moral ills of the populace in the new industrial society. Some of his plays, such as Jedermann and Der Turm emphasize this philosophy.
In 1900, Hofmannsthal approached Richard Strauss with an idea for a ballet, Der Triumph der Zeit. It was not until six years later, however, that Strauss and Hofmannsthal would work together beginning with an adaptation of Sophocles’ Electra. Hofmannsthal would collaborate with Strauss for 23 years on six operas. At the time of his death, Strauss said of Hofmannsthal, “No musician ever found such a helper and supporter. No one will ever replace him for me or the world of music.” He achieved a level of wit, poetry, insight and form which few opera libretti before or since can claim.
—Created from Lyric Opera of Chicago materials and author Philip Seward
The World of Ariadne
First Version (1912)
The opera was originally conceived as a thirty-minute divertissement to be performed at the end of Hofmannsthal's adaptation of Molière's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Besides the opera, Strauss provided incidental music to be performed during the play. In the end, the opera occupied ninety minutes, and the performance of play plus opera occupied over six hours. It was first performed at the Hoftheater, Stuttgart, on 25 October 1912. The director was Max Reinhardt. The combination of the play and opera proved to be unsatisfactory to the audience: those who had come to hear the opera resented having to wait until the play finished.
The first version was produced in Zurich beginning on 5 December 1912 and Prague on 7 December 1912. The Munich premiere followed on 30 January 1913 in the old Residenztheater, a venue which was inferior for the presentation of opera, both acoustically and due to lack of space for the musicians. Hofmannsthal overruled the conductor Bruno Walter's preference for the Hofoper on the grounds that the smaller theatre was more suitable for a work of this kind. The cast included the American Maude Fay as Ariadne, Otto Wolf as Bacchus, and Hermine Bosetti as Zerbinetta. Strauss, being a native son, had a close association with Munich and was held in high regard, but had to miss the performance as he was on a concert tour in Russia. The audience openly expressed its disapproval of the piece by hissing after the first act. For the succeeding performances Walter introduced cuts and moved the production to the Hoftheater, and the attendance began to improve. The 1912 version was also produced in Berlin beginning on 27 February 1913 and in Amsterdam in 1914.
In London the early version was given eight times at His Majesty's Theatre beginning on 27 May 1913. The Hofmannsthal adaptation of Molière's play was presented in an English translation by Somerset Maugham under the title The Perfect Gentleman. The opera was sung in German with Eva von der Osten, Hermine Bosetti and Otakar Marák, conducted by Thomas Beecham. The reviewer in The Musical Times found the incidental music for the play to be more attractive than that for the opera, which nevertheless had "many strong emotional appeals". However, the orchestration of the opera was thought to be "peculiar", and in the finale, the love-making of Bacchus and Ariadne, tedious.
Second version (1916)
After these initial performances, it became apparent that the work as it stood was impractical: it required a company of actors as well as an opera company, and was thus very expensive to mount, and its length was likely to be a problem for audiences. So in 1913 Hofmannsthal proposed to Strauss that the play should be replaced by a prologue which would explain why the opera combines a serious classical story with a comedy performed by a commedia dell'arte group. He also moved the action from Paris to Vienna. Strauss was initially reluctant, but he composed the prologue (and modified some aspects of the opera) in 1916, and this revised version was first performed at the Hofoper, Vienna, on 4 October of that year. This is the version that is normally staged today, although the original play-plus-opera is occasionally performed (for example, at the 1997 Edinburgh International Festival and at the 2012 Salzburg Festival).
The most well-knonw aria in either version is "Großmächtige Prinzessin" / "high and mighty princess", sung by Zerbinetta. Other important pieces of the opera are the arias of Ariadne "Wo war ich...?" / "Where was I...?", "Ein schönes war es..." / "There was something beautiful..." and "Es gibt ein Reich..." / "There is a realm..."
The United States premiere of the opera was given in German by the Philadelphia Civic Opera Company at the Academy of Music on 1 November 1928. Conducted by Alexander Smallens, the cast included Alma Peterson as the Primadonna/Ariadne, Charlotte Boykin as Zerbinetta, Irene Williams as the Composer, and Judson House as the Tenor/Bacchus.