By Lynne Gray, PhD
Note: Met Operas can be streamed from www.metopera.org.
Wednesday, May 13
Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos ~ 2Hrs. 11 Mins.
Starring Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, and Tatiana Troyanos, conducted by James Levine. From March 12, 1988.
Another excellent chance to experience some of the very greatest singers of our past – if not with the best in audio or video quality. Jessye Norman is Ariadne, the mythological Greek heroine who is the title character of the opera-within-this-opera. Her passionate new lover, Bacchus is James King. Kathleen Battle gives us all the coloratura fireworks we expect from Zerbinetta who is the lead player of a commedia dell’arte troupe which finds itself having to perform in the middle of a grand opera set on Naxos. Tatiana Troyanos (in a trouser role) and Franz Ferdinand Nentwig star as the young Composer and the Music Master. James Levine, as always, is excellent at bringing out the color and charm of Strauss’s chamber orchestra-sized score. Bodo Igesz’s production features sets by the designer Oliver Messel. The somewhat dated designs, however, are 1960s vintage “fantasy baroque.” In essence, there’s a lot of fancy furniture and the costumes look like they might have been created for kids playing dress up at the Court of Versailles rather than on a deserted Greek island. There are lots of fancy fabrics and sparkly things, but little “concept” – which would be much more likely these days.
So, how to explain this…. Strauss and his long-time librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, thought it would be fun to explore combining the high art of Opera Seria (dramatic stories concerning royalty, gods and heroes) with the low art of commedia del’arte (improvisational comedies based on familiar stock characters in four basic groups – servants or zanni, old men or vecchi, lovers or innamorati, and wealthy capitani who might also be female).
They use The Prologue to explain the situation to us: the wealthiest man in Vienna has hired two different troupes to entertain his guests – one is an opera company set to perform the serious opera Ariadne auf Naxos, and the other is a commedia del’arte troupe led by the saucy comedienne, Zerbinetta. The performers arrive and immediately set to arguing about which troupe should go first when the Major-domo informs them that dinner has gone on longer than planned and there will not be enough time for both performances before the scheduled fireworks. The two troupes must therefore perform at the same time.
Pandemonium – the Composer refuses to make any changes, the opera stars all want each other’s parts shortened, and the dancing master wants the vocal score cut. Only Zerbinetta tries to come up with a solution. She briefs her troupe on the story of the opera – Ariadne has been abandoned on Naxos by her lover Theseus. Having only the company of the nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo, Ariadne bemoans her fate and wishes to die. Zerbinetta can charm the Composer into dropping his objections to any changes (however briefly!) and working with her to create something new and different.
To see the zany antics that result when The Opera within this opera – is interrupted by Zerbinetta and her troupe appearing on Naxos to try to cheer Ariadne up – you’ll just have to tune in. Enjoy the fun – and the voices we can no longer hear in person.
1. Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Photo: Met Opera Archives
2. Kathleen Battle as Zerbinetta in Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Met Opera Archives.
3. Jessye Norman in the title role of Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos.” Photo: Met Opera Archives.