Richard Strauss - Ariadne auf Naxos
Festspielhaus, Baden-Baden, 2012
Philip Arlaud, Christian Thielemann, Eike Wilm Schulte, Sophie Koch, Renée Fleming, Robert Dean Smith, Jane Archibald, Nikolay Borchev, Kenneth Roberson, Steven Humes, Kevin Conners, Christian Baumgärtel, Roman Grübner, David Jerusalem, Michael Ventow, Christina Landshamer, Rachel Frenkel, Lenneke Ruiten, René Kollo
Medici Live Internet Steaming, 12 February 2012
Much as I love the operas of Richard Strauss, I have conflicted feelings about Ariadne auf Naxos. I’m broadly with the composer on this one, agreeing with his initial reaction to Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s proposal to basically structure the work as an opera within and opera (within an opera) as being much too confusing for an audience. And not just confusing, but worse, dramatically uninvolving. Combining an opera seria with an opera buffa sounds brilliantly clever on the page, setting the old against the new and allowing the difference of style and tone of the forms to work off each other (it worked so well in Der Rosenkavalier), with a clever construct in the Prologue (added after the original version failed) that accounts for this idea, but the work offers still little in conventional dramatic terms. How then do we account for the enduring popularity of Ariadne auf Naxos?
Ariadne auf Naxos is also a witty satire of opera patrons, opera composers, opera performers and even opera audiences, but I suspect its in-jokes appeal more to those putting on the work than those in the audience watching it, but even that doesn’t entirely account for the opera being one of Strauss’s most performed works. The musical qualities cannot be denied, even if there is a sense that it’s also one of those works which offers more to the diva who wants to demonstrate her range and sense of fun. If that were the only reason for putting on the work, drawing performers like the exceptional cast gathered for this 2012 production at Baden-Baden, then that’s perhaps justification alone for putting on the work, but there are evidently other aspects that make the work so attractive to international audiences, and that’s the fact that, as clever sounding as the concept is, the originality of Hofmannstahl’s libretto clearly inspired Strauss to write some of his most beautiful arrangements and inventive melodies that do ultimately touch on deeper truths relating to human nature and emotions.
Ariadne auf Naxos doesn’t function terrifically well then as a stage drama and it’s much too self-referential (I’d still happily dispense with the Prologue from the revised/definitive second version of the opera myself), offering little scope for a modern stage director who wants to impose his own personal vision on the concept. It’s also limiting to the performer who may find that the conventions of the opera seria and opera buffa elements are somewhat restrictive, particularly within this framework. What makes the work special however is the fact that it does come from the creative and fertile minds of Strauss and Hofmannstahl in their prime. Following on from such important works as Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier and already working on the magnum opus that would be Die Frau ohne Schatten, Ariadne auf Naxos may suffer from the same pretensions as those other works – even to a greater degree – but that doesn’t mean that it is really any less brilliant either. It may be clever-clever, but there is a complete sincerity in the musical, emotional and dramatic content of their work together as well as the belief that the unique construct and artifice of opera can raise those qualities to greater heights. The challenge for anyone putting on the work then is in actually getting this across.
Trying to be too clever with works that are already clever enough is always a potential pitfall with Strauss and Hofmannstahl. Claus Guth had a go at it, setting the Zurich production of Ariadne auf Naxos in a famous Swiss hotel without managing to bring anything particularly new or revelatory out of the work. The Baden-Baden production is more traditional in its setting. The stage is like… well… a stage – a Broadway musical arrangement, with a sweeping staircase behind on which the assembled well-off guests at the host’s party sit dressed in their finery (1920s style formal dress), watching the entertainment put on for them by “the richest man in Vienna”. If there doesn’t appear then to be a great deal that director Philip Arlaud brings to the table here – the separate buffa and seria elements are clearly divided and played out in a fairly straightforward manner according to their conventions – there is nonetheless a considerable challenge in actually making the opera’s difficult construct work as well as making it interesting and comprehensible to an audience, and that’s actually achieved exceptionally well here.
Simplicity is the key to making Strauss and Hofmannstahl work, even if that’s not as simple as it appears. Christof Loy’s 2011 Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, for example, would appear to be trying to be overly clever with its concept (setting the fairytale in a post-WWII Viennese concert hall), but by stripping the work back of its trappings and allowing the music and the words to speak for themselves, the full power of the work is nonetheless made apparent. It’s the director’s job to give the work and the performers that necessary space to get that across, and that’s done here too. To a large extent then the weight of interpretation, of letting the piece speak for itself, should lie with the conductor and the singers and, as with the Salzburg Die Frau ohne Schatten, we have one of the most attentive and sympathetic of Strauss conductors here in Christian Thielemann.
In the same way that there is a magic created between Strauss and Hofmannstahl, between the composer and the music, between the conflicting elements of Ariadne auf Naxos (and yes, I have to admit, even with its Prologue), there is also the magic (acknowledged in Strauss’s final opera Capriccio) that is created between the performer and the listener. The combination of Strauss, Thielemann and Renée Fleming and their relationship with the audience is one of the great musical wonders of our age, and that magic is abundantly in evidence here. As Ariadne – surprisingly her first time singing this role – Fleming’s line is beautiful, her legato smooth, with that famous richness of tone in a role and with a composer and a conductor who shows off her qualities to their best, while also bringing out the ecstatic beauty of the music in the opera itself.
It’s a recognition of this chemistry, already seen in Baden-Baden’s successful 2009 production of Der Rosenkavalier that in some way accounts for the commission of this new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Reunited also from that earlier Strauss production is Sophie Koch as the Composer, wearing a Leo Sayer wig, singing the role wonderfully and bringing a nice note of commitment and sincere naivety to the role that belies the parody within it. That’s the case elsewhere in this production, which never plays it as a farce for the fiasco that arises from the central idea of pushing together two different operas in time for a fireworks display. Playing it perfectly seriously – like all good commercial productions, as the Broadway musical setting suggests, the show must always go on – Robert Dean Smith brought his slightly strained heldentenor to the role of Bacchus with similar commitment, and Jane Archibald took on the coloratura fireworks role of Zerbinetta reasonably well, but without ever making much of an impression. All of this contributes to a fine production, even if nothing threatens to overshadow Fleming’s Prima Donna/Ariadne. If I remain unconvinced that Ariadne auf Naxos works conceptually or dramatically, respectively lacking the beautiful concision ofCapriccio and the musical cohesion of Der Rosenkavalier, the beauty of the piece and the inventiveness of Strauss and Hofmannstahl that accounts for its popularity was nonetheless wonderfully evident in the fine staging and singing of this production.
The opera is currently available to view in its entirety and for free on the Medici.tv web site.