Great moments in opera: Ariadne auf Naxos

September 27, 2011

Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos has a special place in my heart: it was the first opera that I ever bought, and perhaps (I don’t quite remember) the first that I ever heard from start to finish. It was Herbert von Karajan’s well-regarded 1954 recording that I bought, with its starry cast of singers: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Rita Streich, and Irmgard Seefried. It is a recording that I treasure still.

In some respects Ariadne was an odd place to make an entry into the world of opera; it is not a work that is widely sampled on ‘Opera Hits’ collections (though it does have one truly spectacular virtuoso aria; see below). I might have been better to start with Don Giovanni or Tosca. With hindsight, though, perhaps it was not so bad a beginning after all: the work is, to borrow a useful anachronism, a tragicomical ‘mash-up’ of operatic traditions, blending elements of the opera seria and opera buffa genres, and liberally spiced with Strauss’ own voluptuous hyper-Romanticism. I wasn’t able to hear all of those elements at the time, but I can hear them now.

The story, to a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, concerns the staging of after-dinner entertainments for a wealthy patron. Both a tragedy (an opera seria on the tale of Ariadne stranded on the isle of Naxos) and a comedy (a song-and-dance burlesque) are planned, but at the last minute the performers are instructed that, due to time constraints, they must perform simultaneously. Hence the mash-up. The backstage preparations are portrayed in a prologue, with some spoken sections, and then the performance — an opera within an opera — follows.

The music of Ariadne, as befits the story, is a mixture of styles, ranging from stately and elegant to jaunty and raucous. For this post I have selected two sections, one from the tragedy and one from the comedy. First up is Ariadne, singing “Es gibt ein Reich” (“There is a realm”). She has been stranded on Naxos by Theseus, and in this section she longs for death to deliver her from her endless torment. It is sung in this clip by Jessye Norman, in a production from the Metropolitan Opera. I don’t know about you, but Jessye Norman scares me: it doesn’t seem right that one human body should be able to produce that much sound. It is only slightly reassuring to see that she is working pretty hard here: watch her sweat. English subtitles included.

In response to Ariadne’s lament, Zerbinetta, a comic actress, bounces in with some advice: the best way to get over a man, she says, is to get another. It’s a darkly humorous clash of worlds: the passionate death-wish of a tortured soul answered by the sassy quips of a glamour girl. Zerbinetta’s aria, “Großmächtige Prinzessin“, lasts nearly 12 minutes and is one of the most difficult in the entire operatic literature: it is a taxing tour de force that defeats all but the greatest singers. My Kobbe’s Complete Opera Guide notes, rather dryly, that “the vocal writing parts company with what is normally considered advisable to write for a singer”. I’ll say. It is sung here by Kathleen Battle. The audience gives her a tremendous ovation at the end, as well they should. No subtitles, but you’ll get the idea.

Is that not amazing?

As an addendum, you might enjoy watching some short rehearsal clips from the same Met production. I have sometimes thought that James Levine, being the head of one of the world’s busiest opera companies, must be a figurehead, showing up for performances, but leaving the detail work to others. If these clips are any indication, that is wrong: he is working personally with his stars (Norman and Battle, as above), preparing the orchestra, and directing action on the stage as well. Impressive, and fascinating too.

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