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Monday, March 27, 2017

The Richard Strauss Project: Ariadne auf Naxos

This comedy was the first Richard Strauss opera to be about...opera. 
The Twmple of Apollo on the Greek island of Naxos.
In the world of opera not everything goes as planned.

A case in point: Richard Strauss’ sixth opera and third collaboration with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. The 1912 version of Ariadne auf Naxos was meant to be performed as a pendant to a Hofmannsthal adaptation of the Moliére play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, for which Strauss had written incidental music. Ariadne (planned as a 30 minute divertissement) would be the crowning jewel of the play. Except that Strauss’ opera ran 90 minutes, and when added to the already long Moliére play, the result was an evening longer than Die Meistersinger. 

It was the pair’s first failure. 
In 1916, Strauss and Hoffmansthal unveiled a Mark II version of Ariadne. They scrapped the Moliére play in favor of a hectic Prologue, backstage "at the house of the richest man in Vienna,” where an opera company is staging a Composer’s new work: Ariadne auf Naxos. The Haushofmeister (major-domo) informs the players that the tragic opera seria will share their stage with a troupe of commedia dell’arte players--at the same time. The players are not happy about being written into the story of a Greek princess, stuck on a rock and bewailing her abandonment

Although its birth was torturous, Ariadne is an inspired work that contains some of Strauss’ best music. It starts with the stormy Prologue, depicting the hustle and bustle of an opera company trying to get its act together. The singers who will play Ariadne and Bacchus appear out of costume, each trying to slash the other’s part out of the score. Caught between them is the Composer, a prodigy who is nervous about the premiere of their first opera and agonized about the fact that it will now share space and time with Zerbinetta and her brand of knockabout comedy. Zerbinetta, the only character who remains essentially "herself" in both halves of the opera, offers words of comfort as  the curtain gets ready to rise.

The opera proper is a masterpiece. Strauss experiments with the juxtaposition of simple songs for the players, the soubrette character of Zerbinetta and the deliberately old-fashioned roles of Ariadne and Bacchus, the Greek god who is her eventual rescuer. Ariadne requires a supple dramatic soprano who can manage a high lyric line and is thus a tough role to cast. The tenor part of Bacchus is Strauss first great creation for that voice, and the composer demanded a heroic voice who could sing sweetly in a high register. That combination is difficult to find, and opera houses often settle for the nearest available heldentenor. 

The most memorable (and challenging) aria in Ariadne is "Grossmächtige prinzessin," sung by Zerbinetta at the evening’s halfway point. This long aria is, it could be argued, an early feminist answer to the “Catalog song” in Don Giovanni, as Zerbinetta tries to cheer the depressed Ariadne with a list of her romantic conquests. The original aria in 1912 was 15 minutes and required two high F sharps. Strauss lowered and shortened the aria in 1916 but still requires the singer to fire off a long trill on a high D after singing for eleven minutes!

Strauss gives his leading ladies magnificent arias in different styles, (Ariadne herself has three!) and the mezzo-soprano Composer (another trouser role)  has some wonderful music to sing in the Prologue. Indeed, the Composer’s first, glowing rendition of the "Bacchus" theme hints at the golden orchestral dawn that comes in the work’s final love duet. And then there's that long duet, kind of an answer to the sing-a-thon that ends Wagner’s Siegfried, as Ariadne realized that her rescuer is not Death but the youthful god Bacchus. Zerbinetta gets the last word: “Kommt der neue Gott gegangen, Hingegeben sind sir stumm!"

Recordings recommendations:
Although it isn't the easiest opera to cast there are a lot of good conductors and sopranos who have made recordings of Ariadne auf Naxos. Conductors like Kurt Masur Herbert von Karajan and Karl Böhm all made multiple recordings that are well worth hearing. These are the ones I keep coming back to.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond Rudolf Kempe (EMI/WBC 1968)
Gundula Janowitz is a radiant Ariadne in this famous EMI recording. Dresden was one of Strauss favorite orchestras and they play this music like they love it. Kempe made many Strauss recordings with this orchestra for EMI and they are all worth pursuing, but this was the only Strauss opera recording this team managed. James King is ideal as Bacchus.

London Philharmonic Orchestra cond. Sir Georg Solti (Decca 1976)
A rare excursion into German repertory for the great Leontyne Price, here paired with Tatina Troyanos’ composer and a good early performance from Edita Gruberova. SGeorg Solti was good in Wagner but even better in Strauss, bringing a welcome drive to the score. René Kollo is good casting as Bacchus.

Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (DG 2001)
Marking the end of a century, an era and the early end of a conductor’s life, this recording is one of the last made by Giuseppe Simopoli, the Italian conductor. He died on the podium in Berlin in 2001, suffering a heart attack during the third act of Verdi's Aida. He was 54. Deborah Voigt was caught here in her prime, opposite Ben Heppner. Natalie Dessay shows how she made her international reputation as Zerbinetta.

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