Slapstick comedy and high dramatic opera collide in Richard Strauss's ingenious Ariadne auf Naxos. This sitcom set to music is the kind of tale you'd get if you threw the characters of Edith Hamilton's Mythology (oh, you remember...that really thick book about Greek gods you were required to read in school) in a blender with the cast of a sketch comedy show, à la Saturday Night Live. Add in some fiery vocal pyrotechnics that would turn Ariana Grande or Mariah Carey green with envy, a heavy dose of director David Gately's comedic genius, and some of the most transcendent music of the 20th century, and you have an opera for everyone. Led by a cast of spectacular singers as funny as they are talented, this rarely performed classic was a hit of the 2013 FWO Festival.
SYNOPSIS OF SCENES
Prologue: The home of Vienna’s richest man.
Backstage, preparations are underway for the performance of a new opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, that will serve as dinner entertainment for the rich man’s guests. The major-domo enters and informs the music master that following the opera an Italian comedy will be performed, after which there will be a fireworks display. Outraged, the music master replies that the composer will never tolerate this, but the major-domo is unimpressed by his objections and leaves. When the composer appears, hoping for a last-minute rehearsal, he is informed that the musicians are still playing dinner music. Suddenly the tenor rushes from his dressing room, arguing with the wigmaker. The prima donna furiously comments on the presence of the comedy troupe and its leading lady, Zerbinetta. In the middle of the confusion, the major-domo returns with an announcement: in order for the fireworks to begin on time, the opera and the comedy are to be performed simultaneously.
At first, the composer refuses to discuss any changes to his work, but when the music master points out that his pay is dependent on accepting the situation, he concedes. The music master persuades the despairing composer to abridge the opera’s score, while the two lead singers independently urge him to change the other’s part. Meanwhile, Zerbinetta gives her troupe a briefing on the opera’s plot. Ariadne, they are told, has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she now waits for death. Zerbinetta, however, claims that all Ariadne really needs is a new lover. When the composer vehemently disagrees, Zerbinetta begins to flirt with him. Suddenly the young man finds new hope. Filled with love and enthusiasm for his work, he passionately declares music the greatest of all the arts (“Musik ist eine heilige Kunst,” Music is a sacred art). When he catches sight of the comedians, ready to go on stage, he realizes with horror what is about to happen. He blames the music master for the artistic debacle and departs in a huff.
The Opera: The curtain rises on the opera itself.
Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus on the island of Naxos. She is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus, and then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. The Harlequin enters and tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen,” Love, hate, hope, and trepidation), but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await death. When the comedians’ efforts continue to fail, Zerbinetta finally addresses Ariadne directly (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin,” Great mighty Princess), explaining to her the human need to change an old love for a new. Insulted, Ariadne leaves. After Zerbinetta has finished her speech, her colleagues leap back onto the scene, competing for her attention. Zerbinetta gives in to the Harlequin’s comic protestations of love and the comedians exit.
The nymphs announce the approach of a ship: it carries the young god Bacchus, who has escaped the enchantress Circe. Bacchus’s voice is heard in the distance (“Circe, kannst du mich hören?” Circe, can you hear me?), and Ariadne prepares to greet her visitor, whom she thinks must be death at last. When he appears, she mistakes him for Theseus returning for her, but he majestically proclaims his godhood. Entranced by her beauty, Bacchus tells her he would sooner see the stars vanish than leave her. Reconciled to a new existence, Ariadne joins Bacchus as they ascend to the heavens. Zerbinetta sneaks in to have the last word: “When a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck.”
Synopsis by Christina Kucan, PR/Communications Specialist, and Hannah Guinn, Director of Fort Worth Opera Studio/Education
The opera Ariadne auf Naxos, written by Richard Strauss during the first years of the Great War, would appear by its title to be a tragedy based on Greek myth. While it sets a basically heroic tone, it mixes in large amounts of low buffo Italian farce, capped off by a touch of rescue opera with a deus ex machina climax. The unprepared opera goer may find this mix confusing, since it poses a contest between high and low art forms, to test which of the two routes best portrays the central role of love in human existence. The somewhat frantic prologue may even seem like the first episode of a complicated television sitcom. It sets up the collision between the opera company and the Italian commedia del arte troupe, to explain the conflict worked out in the formal opera which follows the intermission. Despite the confusion, the audience is invariably thrilled by the plot and its emotions, expressed through the incredible music of Strauss working at his best.
The Origins of the Opera
Following the successful premiere of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier in Dresden in 1911, the composer and his librettist Hugo von Hoffmannsthal were looking for some future projects. They had received some last minute help from the stage director Max Reinhardt, who was given much of the credit for the Dresden triumph, and they felt they owed him a favor (movie fans may know Reinhardt from his later career on Broadway and in Hollywood). Both the director and the librettist were great admirers of Moliere, and Reinhardt was finishing a German adaptation of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme for production in 1913. An offer was made to Reinhardt to produce incidental music and limited musical settings for the Moliere play that would end with short opera based on Greek myth. The subject of Ariadne abandoned was chosen to replace the original ballet “Parade of Nations” with music by Lully, which had been used in earlier French productions.
The idea of the intrusion of comic elements into the tragedy seems to have come from Hoffmannsthal, and the original half hour divertissement soon grew to more than an hour in length. The final play/opera combination lasted five hours or more in its initial performances in Stuttgart and Vienna, and the new work was put on the shelf for several years. Hoffmannsthal began reworking Ariadne auf Naxos, cutting substantial amounts of music from the opera, and writing a prologue to introduce the opera and its characters as a “play within a play.” The Moliere play was totally discarded, although Strauss fashioned some of the incidental music into a concert suite which still occasionally appears on symphony orchestra programs under the name Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Strauss’ music for the Prologue was completed in 1916, and the revised opera was premiered in Vienna to somewhat mixed reviews. It became quite popular in later decades, and it has developed a reputation for being a connoisseur’s opera that has remained in the repertoire of most major opera companies for almost a century.
Ariadne, the Myth
The mythical King Minos was the first monarch and lawgiver of the island kingdom of Crete, center of a great trading empire across the eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BCE. According to the ancient myth, he had gained the throne under the patronage of Poseidon, “God of the Seas,” who sent a giant bull ashore to intimidate any opposition to Minos as king. But Minos failed to placate Poseidon with sacrifices, so the god caused Queen Pasiphaë to fall madly in love with the bull, by whom she produced a monstrous creature called the Minotaur, with the head of a bull and the body of a human. The monster was kept imprisoned in a great maze called the Labyrinth located under the king’s castle at Knossos. Every nine years the Athenians had to pay tribute to Minos, sending seven young warriors and seven maidens to Crete to be sacrificed and fed to the Minotaur.
Theseus, a royal prince, the son of King Aegeus of Athens, volunteered to go to Crete as part of the Athenian tribute, planning to kill the Minotaur and save his thirteen companions. When he arrived in Crete, he gained the affections of Ariadne, daughter of Minos (and thus half-sister of the Minotaur). Princess Ariadne supplied Theseus with weapons and a long ball of twine. When the Athenians were forced to enter the Labyrinth, they unrolled the ball of twine so they could retrace their steps and escape after Theseus killed the Minotaur. Theseus persuaded Ariadne to accompany him back to Athens as his wife, but when they were at sea, he changed his mind and abandoned her on the island of Naxos. At this point our opera begins. The themes of “Arianna abbandonada” and “Ariadne’s Lament” were popular in Renaissance and Baroque opera. The most famous setting of this myth was Monteverdi’s Arianna; sadly, only the “Lament” survives from this score.
The legend of the Minotaur is thought to have been based partially on a bull worshipping cult on Crete, and the custom of acrobatic bull-leaping is pictured on the walls of the palace at Knossos. The Labyrinth legend was most likely inspired by the ruins of an extensive storehouse for trade goods that was placed under the palace structure. Minoan culture was destroyed the first time, probably by Mycaenean raiders, around 1400 BCE. A second Greek-speaking culture was established in its place, as suggested by the decipherment in the 1950s of Linear B writing. (Linear A and Linear B were written languages on Crete used mostly for inventory and some short messages. Linear A was thought to be older and is still a mystery. A historian/philologist named Michael Ventris was able to show a phonetic pattern in Linear B that came very close to language models for the origins of ancient Greek. He suggested that Linear B was an adaption of Linear A in order to fit Greek dialects spoken by Mycenaean raiders who took over Crete.) The Mycenaean culture was then destroyed around 1200 BCE by the mysterious “Peoples of the Sea” who swept across the Mediterranean, raiding and burning all the settlements on the coast. The dark age that resulted lasted almost half a millennium. Even the earliest Greek kings in myth probably post-dated the height of Minoan culture by several centuries.
What’s the Point?
The central focus of the opera both musically and philosophically is Zerbinetta’s great coloratura aria, in which she states that every man she has ever loved (and she admits they were many) overcomes her like a god, and transforms her into a goddess, leaving her overwhelmed, struck silent by his power. In contrast, Ariadne laments losing the one man in her life, Theseus, and she is prepared for death without him. When the stranger, Bacchus, arrives to test her, and takes her away, she submits to him and is transformed by his divine power. Zerbinetta then reappears, repeating softly her line “when the new god appears, we surrender without a word.” If Zerbinetta has every man as a god, Ariadne gets a real god all her own. At this point, the music is reminiscent of those ethereal moments in Rosenkavalier when the opera speaks the truth and makes its point.
In the plot, and through the music, you can experience love lost and regained, the commitment of love as well as lust, transformation through love, and the repose of death averted by the experience of the divine. All in one short hour. That is the delight and the wonder of Ariadne auf Naxos.
Program notes by John Forestner, a member of the Board of the Fort Worth Opera and Chair of the Endowment Committee.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Ariadne auf Naxos
Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo Hofmannsthal
Sung in German
Featuring the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra &
Fort Worth Opera Chorus
Conductor Joe Illick
Director David Gately
Scenic Designer Robin Vest
Costume Designer Susan Memmott Alfred
Lighting Designer Chad R. Jung
Makeup and Wig Designer Steven Bryant
Stage Manager Joe Gladstone
Assistant Director Michael Yeshion
Repetiteur Emily Jarrell Urbanek
English Supertitle Translation Stuart Tarbuck
Spanish Supertitle Translation Gabriela Lomónaco
Cast in Order of Appearance
Major Domo William V. Madison
Music Teacher Stephen Lusmann
Composer Cecelia Hall
Bacchus Corey Bix
Officer David Miller
Dancing Master Ian McEuen
Wigmaker Aaron Sorensen
Lackey Michael Adams
Zerbinetta Audrey Luna
Primadonna/Ariadne Marjorie Owens
Harlekin Steven Eddy
Scaramuccio Zac Engle
Truffaldin Anthony Reed
Brighella Michael Porter
Najade Jeni Houser
Dryade Amanda Robie
Echo Corrie Donovan
Photos courtesy of Ellen Appel & Ron Ennis