MET Opera House building–Lincoln Center/Tuesday March 1st, 2022.
Welcome back friends, and welcome this week, to the wonderful world of opera!
And this week, welcome to a modern and unusual opera, as hilarious, hectic, shrewd, theatrical, lighthearted, as it is romantic, mythical, deep, sad, eventually happy, and beautiful.
A unique and extremely entertaining opera, incredibly poetic, and also, mostly, extremely amusing!
Yay! yay! yay!
Welcome to Richard Strauss (1864-1949), and his revised and shortened, 1916 “Ariadne auf Naxos” opera, (compared to the 6 hours long, initial 1912, original version, featuring an adaptation of Molière’s comedy “Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme”, during which, the hero would offer an opera to his guests, at the end of the play).
So instead, welcome to a shortened (only a little over 3 hours long), revised and unique, 1916 “Ariadne auf Naxos” work: a two part opera, featuring first, a “theatrical” prologue, and then, a one act opera, with a libretto from Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929).
Wow! and yay!
But first, let me tell you briefly, about how this work came about, as it is unusual: Hofmannsthal, was a long term librettist partner for Strauss, whom he initially met, in 1909, on Strauss’s second opera “Elektra”, and with whom, he had just experienced great success on his previous (and my favorite Strauss opera), “Der Rosenkavalier” opera.
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
Yet, this great success of “Der Rosenkavalier”, was partly due, as well, to the help Strauss and Hofmannsthal had, from Max Reinhardt, the stage director of Berlin’s Kleiners Deutsches theater, who rescued the “Rosenkavalier” premiere, by stepping in, when the resident stage director of the Dresden Court Opera, proved unfit.
And to manifest their gratitude, Strauss and Hofmannsthal, who were very different from each other, as one was simpler in his tastes (Strauss), than more sophisticated in his approach to life, poet and librettist (Hofmannsthal), wanted both, to write something for Reinhardt and his troupe, and came up with this fun “Ariadne auf Naxos” entertaining “divertissement” work, which tried their collaborative relationship, but eventually, brought out the best of each other.
Yay! yay! yay!
So in a nutshell, what is Ariadne auf Naxos”‘ plot about?
The prologue explains to the audience, as a piece of real, mostly “spoken”, yet also at times sang theater, that a wealthy man from Vienna, intends to offer, for one evening, to all of his guests, simultaneously, a comedy, from an Italian commedia dell’arte troupe, and a mini-opera, followed by fireworks, displayed in the garden.
Wow! and yay!
How unusual, how joyful, how fun!
Of course, during the prologue, the Italian commedia dell’arte comedy troupe, as well as the leading lady of the troupe, Zerbinetta, the music master, the Major-Domo, and the composer of the opera, all “fight”, over time “given” to each of their troupe’ performances, and eventually agree (after a fun seduction scene from Zerbinetta, who flirts with verve, with the composer), the composer then, agrees unconditionally, to an unusual mishmash of opera and commedia dell’arte comedy, featuring mostly, a short opera about Ariadne in Naxos, finding happiness again, after having been abandoned by her first love, Theseus.
In the following “dreamlike” one act, we will then, dive into the “opera” inside this “theater-opera” mishmash “work”, and meet a disconsolate, mythical and mythological, Greek heroine, Ariadne, being watched by three beautiful nymphs, who lament on Ariadne’s fate: Ariadne has just escaped from Crete, with Theseus, thanks to a “thread” attached to the opening of the labyrinth, after Theseus killed the Minotaur, which both Ariadne and Theseus were able to follow back (the thread), to find “longed for” freedom; yet, quickly, Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus, on the island of Naxos, on his way home, and Ariadne, sings to the audience of her pain.
The comedy troupe then appears, with fun and silly behavior, on stage, trying to cheer Ariadne up, but is ignored by Ariadne.
In a trance-like, morbid state, Ariadne awaits Hermes, to take her to a world, where everything is pure.
Zerbinetta, then, seeing that the comedians efforts to cheer Ariadne up, fail, eventually addresses Ariadne, directly, and tells her, of her own view of the world, in which she believes, that an old love, should be changed to a new one.
The nymphs then, announce the approach of a ship, on which Bacchus (son of Zeus, and god of wine and vegetation), is sailing, and who just escaped Circe, the enchantress.
Ariadne mistakens at first, Bacchus for Theseus, and yet the two, will eventually fall in love, and know happiness together.
And Zerbinetta flirtatiously, has the last word about love, which matches her viewpoint: “when a new god comes along, we’re dumbstruck!”.
And what to say of the production and the singers?
Firstly, that Moshinsky’s beautiful and fun, sometimes abstract production, set mostly in the 18th century, with yet 19th century looking “giant” nymphs dressed in 18th century garb, is as elegant as it is humorous, and to me, a wink to both Wagner’s 19th century giants, in “the Ring” as well, (as the nymphs, to me, are also evidently, a wink to Wagner’s Rhine maidens, from “the Ring” as well), and to me, “winks” also to 18th century Mozart, by dressing the nymphs, in Mozart’s sartorial style, and showcasing a beautiful 18th century mansion in the prologue.
Wow! and yay! yay! yay!
Secondly, that all singers were exceptional, and perfectly conducted, under the baton of Marek Janowsky: I especially enjoyed the depth and color of the powerful Norwegian soprano, Lise Davidsen, as the heartbroken, and later, elated, Ariadne.
American soprano, Isabelle Leonard, was particularly entertaining as well, as the stubborn Composer, as were German baritone, Wolfgang Brendel, as the electric Major-Domo, and German baritone, Johannes Martin Kränzle, as the fun Music master; and finally wonderfully alive, young American soprano, Brenda Rae, took the cake, with her show stopping aria.
Let me now, share two of the most wonderful arias of the opera:
First, Ariadne’s aria, where she recalls her lost love for Theseus, and admire in this excerpt, from a few years ago, the powerful, yet, silky smooth color, of the great Jessye Norman, one of the best sopranos ever:
And now, let’s listen to the most famous aria, of this “Ariadne auf Naxos” opera, and the one aria, sang by Zerbinetta, that Strauss was the most attached to.
And here, in this excerpt, from a few years ago, admire Dessay’s great technique and wonderful acting skills as Zerbinetta, a particularly show stopping aria:
So, to sum up my feelings about this unusual “Ariadne auf Naxos” opera, admired last Tuesday, in great company: what a fun, mostly joyful work, combining both, humor, lightness and depth of feeling, what awesome atmospheric music, and incredible solos for sopranos, and combining as well, beautiful, melodic, happy and sad opera arias, and light hearted, buoyant, dizzying, poetic, commedia dell’arte silliness and sometimes seriousness; thus reminding everyone, that “low brow” and “high brow” genres, can actually often, elevate the entertainment value of a show, and bring out the best of each other, despite sometimes, initial incomprehensions, or varied outlooks.
And wow! wow! wow!
Until next time friends!
Eternal butterflies 😊