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November 09, 2005

Ariadne auf Naxos

The composition of Ariadne auf Naxos, the third product of the collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, was a weird and winding affair that straddled World War I. I don't propose to untangle it here, but only to suggest that the opera's unparalleled sheen of sophistication may owe to its two coats of "finished."

The first version of the opera, staged in 1912, came at the end of a performance of Der Bürger als Edelmann, a translation of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme. Good students will recall that the fifth act of this play is a sort of burlesque, or a roast, of which M Jourdain is the happy victim. At the instigation of Max Reinhardt, Strauss and Hofmannsthal came up with a short period opera to replace the burlesque. Two operas, actually: an opera seria, on the theme of Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos, and her apotheosis in the arms of Bacchus, would be interrupted by a cheeky opera buffa featuring commedia dell'arte characters. As such, this version of Ariadne was a mixed-media affair. First the play, with incidental music, and then the opera.

The second version of Ariadne, premiered in 1917, replaced the Molière with a "Prologue" that would set up the fanciful juxtapositions of the "opera." Set behind an impromptu stage at the home of the richest man in Vienna, circa 1690, the Prologue pits the composer of the opera seria and the dance master behind the opera buffa against the millionaire's major-domo. The major domo astonishes the company with a bizarre pronouncement. In view of the length of the planned entertainment (first the opera seria, then the buffa) and of the opera seria's setting on a depressing desert island, and, finally, of his own impatience for the fireworks display - in view of all this, the richest man in Vienna has decided that the two musical works will take place simultaneously.

The composer refuses to allow his work to be compromised; he is far too high-minded to permit his melodies to mingle with vulgar ditties. Will the show go on? Strauss and Hofmannsthal decided to cast the Composer as a travesti, contralto role, much like Octavian in their preceding collaboration. Like Octavian, the Composer burns with a youthful ardor that is still somewhat immature. Whatever the extent to which the creators of this work intended us to laugh at the anachronism of a seventeenth-century composer's claiming the sanctity of art work, I believe that uncertainty on this and other points is the beauty of Ariadne auf Naxos itself. (The music is beautiful too, of course.) The opera never establishes itself "in period." Our sense of the nature of what we're watching flickers. Now it is a neoclassical composition, an homage to Rameau and Couperin. Now it is a late Romantic work tricked out with perrukes. In the end, it is both at once. Take an opera by Handel. Then imagine what it would be like if Wagner rethought it. Then imagine what it would be like if a Wagner with a sense of humor rethought it. Now you have Ariadne auf Naxos.

The show goes on - of course it does. I ought to say here that Ariadne is far more difficult to explain than it is to watch. Thanks to the Prologue, the funny business in the Opera is expected. Nor is the music unusual on its surface. It becomes strange only to the degree that it fails to correspond to its models, or, rather, to the degree that it raises the question of just what, exactly, its models might be. Strauss scores the opera for a "period" orchestra, one with far fewer strings than was normal in 1912. He employs a harmonium to take the place of the organ in backing up the serious recitatives, while a piano replaces the harpsichord. The effect is not reminiscent of Mozart or Bach, but it does suggest the bygone fashions of a parallel universe. It is a chamber opera most of the time, but a chamber opera with Alzo sprach Zarathustra propensities. Of the principal singing roles, two, Bacchus and Ariadne, seem to have dropped in from Bayreuth between Rings. Two others, The Composer and Zerbinetta (she heads the buffa team), are of Mozartean descent. The irony of reference and the sophistication of allusion, while invitingly good-humored, are intense.

However "meta" all of this might seem, Ariadne auf Naxos is planted firmly in the soil of tradition. In his portrayal of the abandoned queen, Strauss lays out an idea of the use of classical subjects that covers all the arts; it is impossible not to think, for example, of Titian's great picture at the National Gallery in London. The commedia dell' arte passages endearing updates that stay very true to the spirit of their venerable form of entertainment. The seduction of the Composer in the Prologue is another Straussian transformation of a Mozart original. Even though Ariadne refuses to settle down, it is always very much at home.

Posted by pourover at November 9, 2005 05:30 PM

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