Richard Strauss was delighted with his librettist for Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, the Viennese dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. That they were different in almost every way never fazed Strauss. He was a Munich bourgeois, though from a musical family, a basic steak-and-potatoes (or, more properly, Wurst-and-beer) man, an unlikely collaborator for Hofmannsthal, an intellectual, sensitive Viennese Jew, a man who was on the inside of all the tumultuous and exciting events in Vienna in the first decade of the twentieth century. Whether it was Mahler, Freud, or Klimt, Hofmannsthal knew him.
Strauss wrote Hofmannsthal shortly after their success with Der Rosenkavalier in 1911 and suggested that they do either an opera on the Oedipus legend or one based on the Spanish author Calderón de la Barca's Semiramis, complete with lots of sexual orgies. Either of these works would draw music similar to that of Elektra and Strauss's earlier Salome. Hofmannsthal never apparently had any intention of moving in that direction, and though Strauss was approached by such a distinguished author as the Italian Gabriele d'Annunzio, he never considered changing from Hofmannsthal. Whether that was a bad or good thing has long been argued.
But when one considers that their next collaboration was Ariadne auf Naxos, it is clear that Strauss made a good choice indeed. Hofmannsthal coaxed Strauss into agreeing to fulfill the request of the famed theatrical producer Max Reinhardt, who wanted a piece to tack onto Molière's Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Strauss wrote incidental music for the Molière play, and then, after a short, spoken, connective piece, came his opera Ariadne. This opera corresponded to the second part of the present-day Ariadne auf Naxos. The play-opera was given its premiere in October 1912 in Stuttgart and did not succeed. The theatergoers were bored with the opera; the operagoers thought there was too much play.
Strauss was disgusted and wanted to let the project die. Hofmannsthal came back several times, however, determined to make the work live; he believed in it. He devised a prologue and tried to talk Strauss not only into composing music for it but also into revising the original Ariadne, which we call "the Opera." He maintained that the role of Zerbinetta, with her great aria in the original version, was so difficult that it was virtually unsingable. It took several years for Strauss to see that Hofmannsthal was right. In January 1916 (in the middle of World War I), Strauss started working on the opera as we know it today, and he was finished by the end of June. Later that year, the work had its Vienna premiere, followed a bit later by one in Berlin. It took about ten years for Ariadne auf Naxos to catch on. From then on, it has always been popular in Europe. Its Metropolitan Opera premiere, in 1962, was very successful, and the work has not been out of American repertory since.
Ariadne auf Naxos, unusual in its use of only thirty-five or so orchestra members and no chorus, still requires more than a few major voices: at least four top-flight artists and no less than nine others who have a lot of important music to sing. With the possible exception of the lead tenor, who has a small part in the Prologue and then appears only for the final duet—essentially a singing part—every one of the other roles requires a lot of theatrical ability.
I think that it is Strauss's most consistently ravishing score. There is not one note too many, no phrases are overwritten, and there is no filler. It is light, bright, funny, sad, serious; only in the last pages is the language overblown. It shows off what a tunesmith Strauss could be and what a brilliant writer Hofmannsthal was. Though it can be presented poorly, I think I have seen more consistently enjoyable Ariadnes than any other Strauss opera, including Der Rosenkavalier.
The Opera itself has some of the most famous moments: Ariadne's "Es gibt ein Reich," which contains the kind of high rapturous utterance that defines the Strauss soprano; the glorious, final duet that resembles the final duet of Siegfried in more than a few ways; and the aria of Zerbinetta, "Grossmächtigin Princesszin," the most difficult, challenging, and exciting aria for lyric coloratura composed in the twentieth century. There is also the baritone's short, effective "Lieben, Hassen," a boon to lyric baritones looking for a short aria in German for auditions. But it is the Prologue on which I want to focus.
Hofmannsthal was an involved thinker: no plot in opera is more convoluted than his wonderful Frau ohne Schatten or the less-often-produced and musically weaker Aegyptische Helena. But at his best—in Elektra or in this Ariadne Prologue—he wrote very simple, trenchant German. There is even a dryness and concision about the Prologue that is not exactly French but does have a feeling more associated with French drama than German. The story is essentially timeless, because the Prologue reflects the theater of the Western world perfectly at any moment in the last 150 years.
In our production, a rich man in a modern city has rented an art gallery for the evening and invited his friends to dinner, followed by an opera. A young composer, still in his teens, obviously a Wunderkind, has been engaged to write the work. He is accompanied and aided by his older, wiser music teacher. The Composer has written a serious work about love, a work which glories in the constancy of woman, and the eternal quality of one woman's love. In a very German fashion, he has used a Greek myth—that of Ariadne, who has been deserted by her lover, longs for death, and plans to remain faithful beyond death to the man she first loved.
The wealthy host, wanting to entertain his guests, doesn't like the fact that the subject is so gloomy and humorless and that all the Composer wants as setting for his opera is a rock on a barren island. He therefore imports a troupe of comedians to liven things up.
There are many strings to Strauss's bow in this idea. He had been subjected himself to humiliations as a composer, but he was neither pompous nor affected with too many thoughts of Holy German Art. He therefore sees the Composer's predicament as funny while having sympathy for his teenage frustration. He creates a Butler who delivers the rich man's messages. This Butler embodies the classic, old-style servant, more pompous and officious than any but the most impossible master could be. He has contempt for all who are not of the highest class and seems to have taken on his master's social class by working for him. He lets the Music Teacher know from the beginning that art is no more than casual entertainment for his guests and that the fireworks have more resonance for him—and conceivably for the guests—than any musical entertainment.
Strauss and Hofmannsthal felt, like many serious artists today, that many patrons of the arts regarded art as entertainment, certainly not as something serious or affecting. But Hofmannsthal does more. He has even the footman make fun of the Composer, treating him with contempt as though he were stupid. He gives the Composer a flighty, teenage personality, having him thinking up melodies, desperately trying to record them, and bewailing the ones he has lost. And he has both the tenor and the soprano (or Prima Donna, as she is called) act in a demanding manner not unheard of for major singers in any opera house today.
The rich host then throws a real kink into the works, when he decides that his guests simply will not sit through the seriousness of the Greek tale; he insists that the comedy and the opera will occur simultaneously. The essence of the problem comes out in the conversation between the Music Teacher and the Dancing-Master, who is more or less responsible for Zerbinetta and her troupe of comedians.
Is it better to have art diluted, changed, perhaps mutilated but still performed, or to have it perfect and unperformed? The answer, of course, is the former. Composers write music to hear it played, and they will let terrible things be done to it in order to get a performance.
Hofmannsthal sweetens the pill by making Zerbinetta, the leader of the comedians and a beautiful young woman, charm the Composer, who has never seen a woman like this and has probably never had a young woman flirt with him so openly. He is enraptured, and she inspires him to sing one of Strauss's most wonderful arias, which begins with the words "Sein wir wieder gut" but which is known as the Composer's aria. It comes out of teenage love and the Composer's own joy in his music. One of the greatest paeans to music ever composed, it brims over with rhapsody. Of course, it changes nothing. The Composer is quickly snapped back to reality and is miserable. But he has had this sublime moment. It makes it all worthwhile, and caps this brilliant exposition of what it is like to compose and live a life in opera.
Hofmannsthal, in a letter to Strauss, summed up his feelings about Ariadne. "Of all our joint works," he wrote, "this is the one I never cease to love best…the music is as enchanting in the memory as anything could be; like fireworks in a beautiful park, one enchanting, all-too fleeting summer night." This image is one for which we strive as we present Ariadne auf Naxos at Seattle Opera.