Ariadne auf Naxos, Opera by R. Strauss
Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss is truly a one-off opera. It cleverly combines a serious mythological drama with a farcical comedy, pushing the boundaries of the concept of a story within a story. Designed as a study of audiences’ preference for high-brow art or shallow laughs, the piece was first performed in October 1912 back-to-back with a play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, a grand fusion of theatre and opera that lasted six hours altogether. Since initial reception was generally cold and viewers quickly lost patience with the outsized duration of the performance, Hofmannsthal and Strauss swapped the extended play for a prologue that explains the opera. The new and improved Ariadne auf Naxos premiered on 4 October 1916 at Vienna State Opera. It enjoyed lasting success and deservedly so, as audiences at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice will get to see.
While the text and plot line of Ariadne auf Naxos underwent significant changes, Strauss’ music remained relatively intact throughout the piece’s evolution. It is safe to say the composer hit his mark from the beginning. Particularly the female arias such as ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’ or ‘Wo war ich?’ stand out.
Ariadne auf Naxos consists of two parts, the ‘Prologue’ that sets up the complicated plot and the ‘Opera’ that is, in fact, a tale within a tale. The unique feature of Strauss and von Hofmannsthal’s creation is the seamless fusion between a classic opera and a low-brow comedy. Two sets of performers gather at the home of Vienna’s richest citizen. One troupe, led by the incendiary lady Zerbinetta, specialises in burlesque, while the other focuses on serious and tasteful opera. As the order of events has not been fixed yet, the two groups get into a fight about who should go first. The butler breaks up the fight with an unusual announcement: Dinner has run too long and both performances must take place simultaneously. How the drama of Ariadne auf Naxos can possibly combine with the raunchy antics of Zerbinetta’s crew will only become clear to audiences at Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice.