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Opera Essentials: Ariadne auf Naxos

A quick guide to Strauss's sparkling tragi-comedic opera.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

23 June 2014 at 10.03am | 1 Comment

The Story Begins…

A wealthy patron of the arts has commissioned an evening’s entertainment: an opera inspired by the story of Ariadne, followed by a comedy. When it becomes clear that the performance will be too long, he decides to have the pieces performed together. Will the result be a failure or an astonishing triumph?

Sparkling Wit

Christof Loy’s production opens with a brilliant scenic trick; right before our eyes, the set transforms from the hall of the house of ‘the richest man in Vienna’ to the grubby basement where the artists in his pay are rehearsing. Loy wittily highlights the differences between the ‘serious’ singers and the comedy troupe – in their gestures, their costumes and their general behaviour – while providing a radiant finale to the opera.

Two Worlds

In Ariadne auf Naxos, composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal explore two worlds: the heroic world of myth in the story of Ariadne, in which she moves from grief to rapturous love for the god Bacchus; and the cheerful, insouciant world of the commedia dell’arte in the story of Zerbinetta and her lovers. This daring combination of styles was Strauss’s challenge to the aesthetic of Richard Wagner, who both admired and had misgivings about juxtaposing tragedy and comedy.

From Enlarged Play to Double Opera

Ariadne auf Naxos began life as part of an arrangement by Hofmannsthal of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, the ‘Ariadne’ opera forming the second part of the evening. The premiere in 1912 was not a success – largely as the audience were uncertain whether they were watching a play or an opera. Strauss rewrote the work during World War I, creating for a 1916 premiere the Prologue we know today (replacing the Molière material), and developing the character of the passionate young Composer.

A Love of the Soprano Voice

Throughout his career Strauss revelled in the soprano voice. Ariadne auf Naxos includes three of his great soprano roles: the passionate and lyrical Ariadne, the flamboyant Zerbinetta (one of the hardest roles in the coloratura repertory) and the intense and enthusiastic Composer, a role written for the great German soprano Lotte Lehmann.

Ariadne auf Naxos runs from 25 June–13 July 2014. Tickets are still available. The production is given with generous philanthropic support from Hélène and Jean Peters, Hamish and Sophie Forsyth and The Maestro’s Circle.

Antonio Pappano conducts the cast and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House in concert at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham, on 6 July 2014. Tickets are still available.

This article has 1 comment

  1. Ditlev responded on 26 June 2014 at 11:25am Reply

    Last night's performance of Ariadne was absolutely fabulous! A witty production, marvellous conducting and uniformly strong singing crowned by the unbeatable Karita Mattila. After such a long absence from the house, let's hope she returns regularly in the next few years so audiences can enjoy further memorable performances from this operatic legend.

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