Major Operas | Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss | Turn of the Century
Strauss may not have been the out-and-out modernist many have wanted him to be, but neither was he one to sit back and reproduce carbon copies of past successes. Strauss and Hofmannsthal decided to follow up Der Rosenkavalier with an altogether different proposition.
Ariadne auf Naxos, in its original version, is a curious amalgam of play and opera. Its conception was troubled and led the two collaborators into their first serious disagreement. After discussing numerous ideas, they finally settled on a scenario that mixed commedia dell’arte characters with eighteenth-century operatic stereotypes.
Strauss was initially curious, but not moved to any great enthusiasm. As his work on the project progressed, though, it grew so far beyond Hofmannsthal’s original conception that the librettist felt compelled to write to Strauss explaining exactly what he had meant. The work was finally finished in 1912 and lasted about an hour and a half, compared to the original conception of half an hour. The premiere was a let-down, with neither audience nor critics grasping the work, and Strauss and Hofmannsthal immediately set about revising it. The tone of the piece is knowing in a similar way to Der Rosenkavalier, but its sending up of every kind of theatrical convention and musical style was a surprise. It remains a difficult piece to stage and is regarded by many as extravagant and over-written, both musically and dramatically.
A large drawing room belonging to the richest man in Vienna has been turned into a theatre. He has commissioned varied entertainment to follow dinner: an opera seria, an opera buffa and fireworks. Crew, performers and admirers bustle backstage. The music master is unhappy that his pupil’s opera is to be followed by a low comedy. Zerbinetta, leader of the commedia dell’arte troupe, tells the dancing master it will be difficult to entertain the audience after a boring opera. Disgusted at having to mix with such low people, the prima donna is assured by the music master that everyone will remember her in the title role. The major-domo announces a change of plan: both pieces are to be performed together. The composer is about to walk out when the music master observes that he would lose six months’ pay. The dancing master believes no one would mind if the opera were cut, and the prima donna and the tenor vie to make sure the other loses out. When the opera’s plot is explained to her, Zerbinetta says that Ariadne is waiting for another lover, not death. The composer defends his heroine but is overcome by Zerbinetta’s flirtation. Enchanted, he rhapsodizes to the music master about the power of music. He realizes too late what the performance will be and leaves in despair.
Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos, sleeps in her cave, watched by three nymphs. She awakes to lament that she is still alive....
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