Opera + Classical Music Features

Why I Love… Ariadne auf Naxos

Continuing the series on our writers’ operatic passions, Sam Smith considers how a flawed first version of Ariadne auf Naxos went on to produce a brilliant second.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle broke the fourth wall, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg put musical convention and taste under the spotlight, and White Christmas was a musical about putting on a musical. There is a touch of all of these elements in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos, and it is a piece I love because in its blending of high and low art it proves innovative, amusing and yet also very moving. 

The work started life in 1912 when Hugo von Hofmannsthal asked Strauss to write an opera to conclude the play he was writing, an adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Originally conceived as a thirty minute divertissement to round off the evening, the opera ended up lasting ninety minutes (fifteen longer than its later version) while the play and opera together went on for over six hours.  Since it required an ensemble of actors as well as an opera company, it proved expensive to mount, while its length was quite a problem for audiences. When the opera also proved more popular than the preceding play, von Hofmannsthal suggested that Strauss replace the more troublesome element with a musical prologue. The result was the 1916 version, which is the one that is almost always performed today. 

The origins of the opera explain a lot, because when the plot is really broken down it feels quite nonsensical. Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, claims she wants to die, before Zerbinetta tells her the best way to mend a broken heart is to find another man. Then Bacchus arrives and Ariadne mistakes him for the herald of death, before falling in love with him and being transfigured. On paper it hardly seems a story worth telling, and yet this is never a feeling I have when I watch the work. This is partly because the prologue helps the opera make sense by explaining why it combines a serious classical story with a comedy performed by a commedia dell’arte group. It is also because Strauss’ writing is so skilful that the different styles of music complement each other in such as way as to create a highly coherent whole. When the balance between the different elements is brought out perfectly by a cast, one cannot help but laugh at Ariadne’s initial lament being interrupted by a group of players indulging in an all-singing, all-dancing routine.

Nevertheless, the main reason why I love the opera is because I find it so emotional. The final scene when Bacchus appears is spellbinding, with almost every line he utters moving me deeply. The intervals within them are very much ones that appeal to my heart (which is surely no surprise for a Wagner fan such as myself) but I also find Naiad, Dryad and Echo’s trio in this section extremely beautiful.

I believe that Ariadne auf Naxos genuinely benefits from dressing Bacchus and Ariadne as real people rather than gods or overtly classical figures. This is because doing so helps us relate to their emotions, which are ultimately very human. Opera Holland Park’s 2018 version by Antony McDonald, a co-production with Scottish Opera, did well in this respect by putting Bacchus in a white suit so that he came across as an old-fashioned gentleman. One felt that, after everything Theseus had put Ariadne through, here finally was someone who would really care for her, and who seemed genuinely upset when he could not make her understand who he really was.

It is also important that the pair are allowed to interact in a way that generates chemistry between them. Longborough Festival Opera’s otherwise excellent 2018 production by Alan Privett kept the two apart for virtually the entire scene. It made sense in terms of seeing her finally join him at the end for the transfiguration, but it made the encounter feel rather static and unengaging until that point. I also like productions that end with Naiad, Dryad and Echo each joining with one of Zerbinetta’s rejected suitors so that, along with Ariadne and Bacchus and Zerbinetta and Harlequin, there are five couples on stage, and all feels right with the world. 

“…in its blending of high and low art it proves innovative, amusing and yet also very moving”

To me the breaking of the fourth wall should be restricted to the prologue. This is because, although it mixes musical styles, the opera works as a complete entity that benefits from being played, on its own terms at least, straight down the board. I am therefore not a fan of productions that incorporate the Composer from the prologue into the opera itself as a silent presence (unless it is only for a few seconds at the beginning or end). This is something that Katharina Thoma’s 2013 version for Glyndebourne Festival Opera did, and it contributed to an overall tendency to add too many layers to the work so that they undermined rather than illuminated the original piece.

Thoma’s production set the action in 1940 in an English manor house (such as Glyndebourne’s own), but in making reference to the Second World War it focused on a time when, amidst all of its horrors, artistic endeavour could be deemed a relatively trivial issue. Ariadne auf Naxos certainly explores the role of art in society, and the question of whether compromise in artistic endeavour is ever desirable or permissible. All the same, the production, by emphasising the relative importance of matters outside of the artistic realm, seemed to be making the opposite case to that of the original work. In the opera the manor house seen in the prologue had been converted into a hospital with Naiad, Dryad and Echo being nurses tending wounded and shell-shocked soldiers. This extra layer of activity on top of the original plot proved very distracting, and ultimately confused the entire affair. Anyone unfamiliar with the work would have struggled to ascertain which parts of the action constituted the original story, and which the additional commentary being applied in this instance.

In 2012 Sven-Eric Bechtolf directed the 1912 version for the Salzburg Festival, with Daniel Harding conducting the Vienna Philharmonic. It is available on DVD, and does help to reveal why the first version did not catch on as the play feels quite pedestrian and monotonous. This is no reflection on Bechtolf’s direction or on the excellent cast that includes Jonas Kaufmann as Bacchus, Emily Magee as Ariadne and Elena Moşuc as Zerbinetta, and the work is important enough to justify a presentation of the less successful version. Fans of Ariadne auf Naxos will probably find watching it worthwhile, although it should be noted that Bechtolf still reworked aspects of the play, inserting much of the text from the 1916 prologue as spoken dialogue. 

The opera is presented as it would originally have been and features Jourdain, the master who is frequently referred to during the 1916 prologue but never seen in any part of the later version. Here, he watches the opera and interjects with spoken comments. The trouble is that this destroys any chance of us believing in, and feeling for, anything we see as the emotional impact of Ariadne’s initial lament is ruined by him repeatedly jumping up and asking why she is behaving like this. If the 1912 version of the opera is worth staging, and I believe it is, then it should be done authentically as one would gain no sense of what the original was like by presenting a hybrid. However, one cannot help feeling that as soon as Strauss and von Hofmannsthal saw Jourdain’s interjections on the stage they realised they did not work, and thus omitted them from the later version. If so, the value in seeing something that they chose to discard is possibly limited.

What Strauss and von Hofmannsthal produced second time around feels so perfect that it has provided me with many memorable nights in the opera house. None proved to be more so than Richard Studer’s production at West Green House, a small but highly accomplished summer opera festival, in 2015. The relative intimacy of the production was a selling point, because it enabled the individual performers to engage with the audience on a very personal level, but nothing beat the quality of the singing. So good were Jonathan Stoughton and Rebecca Nash’s sounds that we were simply waiting for Bacchus or Ariadne’s next line so we could hear them once more. There is nothing more thrilling than when that happens in a theatre, but it only tends to when the music is so moving to begin with. That to be found in Ariadne auf Naxos certainly is, and it provides just one of the many reasons why the piece stands as one of my favourite operas.

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