Let me just start by saying this: I do not know how I first came to know Richard Strauss. He is not a composer whose work (operatic or otherwise) you get to hear often in Greece in general, let alone my tiny hometown (which can brag about having one state symphony orchestra, but not the endurance to play or hear Strauss). So, truly, I do not know what tipped the scale towards him. Was it an opera? Some of his lieder? One of his more famous symphonic works? I wish that I could answer all these questions. But I can’t. It wasn’t part of my familiar environment either. I mean, we did not sit during lunch at home and say: “Let’s put some Strauss on!” Nope! And I know for a fact that my father, for example, isn’t really a fan. My mother is an altogether different story, in that she studied musicology under one of the most renowned Strauss experts in Germany and maintains contact with him even today! But this doesn’t mean that she is as crazy about the guy as I am either. So, it’s just me. And to me it feels as if this was always this way – as if from the very beginning I shared a connection with the great master. And that’s enough explanation for me. Some things are better left undisturbed. This is one of them.
By now the only thing you might have extrapolated from this opening soliloquy is that I am going to talk about an opera by Richard Strauss. And you would be right! Finally – some of the more observant of you might even add; considering that it is 2014 and a Strauss anniversary and I haven’t yet made any comments about him. That is about to change with today’s contribution (and, who knows, we still have one more number to go, or don’t we?) You might guess as to my choice too. There are quite a few operas that might come into question actually (I wouldn’t be a true Strauss fan, if I didn’t like them pretty much all), but really only two are the absolute contestants for this list. I’ll be revealing the first one today. The other will have to wait – by the way, this was a major spoiler alert as to what lies on top of the list, but who pays any attention anyway?
THIS TIME I AM NOT GOING TO WARN YOU ABOUT TAKING THE TIME TO WATCH THE OPERA FIRST AND COME BACK LATER,
and the reason for that is quite simple: according to a very fine German book called „Der einzig wahre Opernführer“, Ariadne auf Naxos (which is the subject matter of this post) has no significant plot whatsoever. Which in turns is extremely wrong, but the book is a funny book and when it says that there is no significant plot whatsoever, it simply means that the plot is so convoluted and writhe with hidden messages that you cannot possibly begin to explain it in just a few lines. That is the truth of the thing and for this reason I will not give any plot summaries this time. Take a moment (well, about one hour and a half to be exact) to watch the opera first, in case you haven’t already and then come back.
Today I will try something different. Instead of analyzing the plot in terms of its occurrence, I will give a very personal insight into why this opera means so much to me, through its core characters. Then, if all goes well, I will address some key questions this brilliant piece of theatre poses and hopefully I will reach some kind of a conclusion. I have to apologize upfront for any inconvenience this post might cause to you, my dear readers, because today it will get very personal and I don’t do well at subjects that are close to my heart.
The first character that needs to be mentioned is the Composer. His onstage presence and music in the libretto take up about 15 minutes of the whole thing. One might say that he is a minor character in terms of the time allotted to his person. But that would be an understatement of the grandest proportions ever! In the magically crafted text by Hofmannsthal, these 15 minutes are more than enough to explore the depths of a truly tragic hero, who, in a sense is the first original emo (I doubt that most emos out there are even aware of that…) The Composer is a trouser role. Strauss composed it for a soprano and the original cast of 1916 had Lotte Lehmann personifying the part. Today, it is usually mezzos who take up the challenge, which kind of makes sense. My personal favorites from my generation of singers are Daniela Sindram and Sophie Koch. But that is enough advertising for the moment, back to the character. The Composer is, by all appearances, the typical antisocial, secluded, totally emotional and sensitive archetype of an artist. He is aloof, does not understand how the world around him operates and his only motivation for doing what he does is his commitment to Music. His only friend is his mentor, who makes sure his pupil gets a commission. He is a loner. But he craves for human affection and most importantly, love. He just doesn’t know it yet. His worldview includes only one thing: Music and at the beginning of the Prologue (I will get back to that part later on), he is frustrated that no one understands the importance of his composition. His appearance in the beginning is quite comical and emphasizes in a very eloquent way his lack of worldly experience. The Composer treads in uncharted waters and what is most striking about this experience is his honesty about everything. Obviously this honesty gets misunderstood by everyone around him, because the real world is not accustomed to honest people. There are two turning points: the first one comes with the realization that he has to compromise in order to see his work performed and the second one when he meets the comedienne.
Accepting compromise is a painful process for him. He does it very reluctantly and in the end (which end though?) he regrets it altogether. His dramatic recount of a prophecy received as a child testifies to that painful realization. The Composer sees things in black and white – there are no in between shades for him. What he believes to be right, must necessarily, in his opinion, represent the view of every single person in the world. His venture into society forces him to see that things are not this way. His pure imagination becomes tainted by the corrupt system of the aristocracy and all that goes with it. His ideals receive a fateful blow. But, instead of making this a tragic story about a person unable to cope with society, Strauss and Hofmannsthal do one better: in the Composer there is hope. It is never openly expressed nor do we actually see it fulfilled. But the hope is there for two reasons: first, because he never loses his faith in Music as the holiest of things and second, because for a brief moment he finds Love (that brief moment is open to interpretation by the various directors who have staged this work throughout the years; I’ll come back to that point as well).
This finding of Love is the second turning point, mentioned above. The Composer’s meeting with Zerbinetta, the young girl who sings and dances and fucks through life, theatre and men is one of the sweetest, yet at the same time most heartbreaking moments in the history of opera. If the Composer is the absolute symbol of an antisocial hero, Zerbinetta is the exact opposite. She knows everybody, is known by everybody and has a very cheery disposition. Essentially these two are the two sides of a single coin – and that is why, theoretically speaking, they would make the perfect couple. Opposites attract, obviously and this situation here is no exception. But while Zerbinetta has a larger-than-life kind of on stage existence and spreads her antics through both the Prologue and the actual opera, the Composer is left behind (or is he?).
Zerbinetta is the second most important character in this play. For one because she is there from beginning to end. She also has the showpiece aria of the opera – a pyrotechnical scene that requires brilliant coloratura, perfect timing and an accomplished actress – which has been called by Diana Damrau “the Mount Everest of coloratura sopranos”. Diana Damrau is one of those rare performers who make the role of Zerbinetta their own and I am truly glad I got to see her perform this live in what is arguably the greatest interpretation of this work ever made (more on that later). Now, as I have already mentioned, Zerbinetta is a comedienne and someone who has a very open minded stance towards romance and relationships. In the words of the Dance Master, she has no problem in improvising her appearance, because she always plays herself, which, as it turns out is true. Let me say here, however, that Ariadne auf Naxos is an extremely complex work and it would be unfair to its heroines to limit them to such comments only. In typical Strauss-Hofmannsthal fashion, this work is about change, about the potential of transformation within each of us, the ability to realize our true self, through experience. The Composer undergoes such a change, as mentioned already. But does Zerbinetta follow on that line or is she truly a one sided character, who only plays herself?
Depending on the staging, the answer to this question varies. There are two reasons for that. The first is her central scene in the Prologue with the Composer. In that she “confesses” to him that in truth she is a lonely individual who puts on a smile and faces life that way, making everyone around her believe she is always happy and satisfied. But can this “confession” (the “” both times are consciously placed around the word) be accepted as an honest one or is it a cleverly employed trick she uses on the Composer, to convince him to accept the changes in his work? The scene is way too short to provide us with a definitive answer. Therefore, there are a number of ways to interpret this. One way is to see the Prologue and the ensuing opera as one work, in which case Zerbinetta’s great aria in the opera negates her “confession” and proves the Dance Master’s statement. In this case, Zerbinetta’s scene with the Composer in the Prologue is a clever trick – she knows what kind of power she exacts on men, and uses that to fool the Composer into believing she actually might have feelings for him, when in truth she only wants the play to get going, so that she doesn’t lose her paycheck. That is the absolute realistic and opportunistic reading of this scene. The second way is again to see Prologue and Opera as one, but this time to really open the doors for a possible romance between the two characters. In such readings, the Composer usually remains on stage, even though the Prologue has ended and his presence is not mentioned throughout the rest of the opera. In this second reading, Zerbinetta is truthful about herself and reveals herself to be more like the Composer and less than a femme fatale. If you believe in fairy tales and happy endings, then this is the way for you to interpret this scene. Finally, there is the third way, which is to remain entirely faithful to the text and separate Prologue and Opera altogether. In that case, what Zerbinetta says afterwards in her big scene in the opera, has no bearing in her scene with the Composer and therefore that scene is just a small, but beautiful – in musical and textual means – blip. The Prologue represents real life, the Opera the illusion. But, doesn’t Zerbinetta always portray herself according to the Dance Master?
In order to fully explore Zerbinetta’s change – if indeed there is one – we have to consider her showcase scene in the opera itself. Considering that she has only two major scenes in total – the one with the Composer and the one in the opera – it is important to see the scene in relation to the other characters on stage at the time. I have already gone into the first scene in detail. Here, Zerbinetta’s counterpart is Ariadne, the protagonist of the Composer’s opera. But, in contrast to the first scene with the Composer, where both characters express themselves, here Ariadne remains silent. One way to explain this is of course to see it as an impossible moment for Ariadne, since Zerbinetta’s intermezzo is improvised and does not belong in the original plot. But that would be the pragmatic way of interpreting the silence.
Let’s focus on what Zerbinetta actually says in this scene. She begins rather playfully, even by making japes at Ariadne. Seeing, however, that they do not bring the desired effect, she then tries to establish a different form of connection with her, by saying that she knows what if feels to be abandoned and that Ariadne is not the only one. And then she says this immortal line: “Men are unfaithful!” (Do pay attention to the exquisite changes of mood in the music itself during the entire first part of this scene – they vary from happy-go-lucky to dramatic to playful to painful…) But instead of continuing on the line of male unfaithfulness, she does something even better: by accepting that as a given, she does the same to them. She plays with men (almost) the same way men play with women and she enjoys it immensely. Zerbinetta loves men – nothing will ever change that for her; she cannot hold back from them. But instead of moping around when she gets dumped for someone else, she does the dumping! Her actions are perfectly justifiable to her. What follows is a recount of some of her amorous adventures, delivered in a very sensual and rather explicit musical way. It is important to note one thing here: Zerbinetta, by today’s standards would be called a slut. But there is nothing slutty about her. Quite the contrary, she does what she does out of conviction and – yes – love towards men. She is aware of the fact that she is attracted by them, but instead of waiting for the “right” one, she takes every chance she has to satisfy herself. In this we find yet another gender barrier broken: if a man today acts the way Zerbinetta acts, he is considered a playboy and is admired by his male peers and craved by the ladies. The prodigious Don Juan is a positive symbol for both men and women. However, if a woman behaves the way Zerbinetta does, even if she is unmarried, she is immediately labeled as a slut, a whore etc. Men do not care for such women much – oh, they do like to fuck them, obviously, but they are still judgmental of them – and women, in their infinite jealousy, will shut someone like that from their social circle and make everything in their power to make sure such a person does not come anywhere near their men. Isn’t that incredible? I believe it is. Which of course is a completely wrong interpretation of Zerbinetta altogether, but that is what would happen were she not a fictional character. Zerbinetta breaks gender boundaries and in her capacity as a comedienne, she cannot be criticized by either men or women.
Her next scene, which comes right after her big aria, is another part of the play in which she interacts with the men in her troupe. This scene can have multiple readings as well. One, it is the troupe’s final intersection with the drama, where they play their part of cheering the audience up with some comic relief. Two, it continues exactly where the previous aria left off, simply to exemplify Zerbinetta’s lose morals. Three, it seals any open doors for the romance of Zerbinetta and the Composer, by openly showing who Zerbinetta really is.
Zerbinetta is the most elusive character in the play. She stands in contrast to both Composer and Prima Donna/Ariadne. It is unclear whether she undergoes any kind of metamorphosis throughout the opera. There is no way to pin her down. She remains a mystery and therefore she absolutely steals the show, which is exactly what the Prima Donna fears…
The last remaining female character in this opera is the diva. Her character is also present in both the Prologue and the Opera and her character is probably the easiest to interpret. First things first: in the Prologue she acts entirely as one would expect from an opera diva, even by today’s standards. She is extremely proud, has certain psychological problems – namely, she needs to be the one and only and when that is threatened, she becomes a bitch – she needs constant pampering, has no scruples bribing people to get what she wants and generally is a master at overreacting in the grandest of fashions (most stage directors like to have their Primadonnas faint at a certain point in the Prologue). What this portrayal makes of her is this: the Prima Donna does not care about the music or the character she is about to embody, but only about her fame. Which, I suppose, is true. There is no genuine interest on her part about the score that is being mutilated; only about the amount of music she will end up singing (the more music she has, the greatest impression she will make on the audience).
By the time the actual Opera begins and she has transformed into Ariadne, the convention is simply that she is no longer the Prima Donna, but the main character of Ariadne auf Naxos an opera by the Composer. It is exactly what happens every night in every theatre around the world: the diva, no matter how over- or underpaid she is, how likeable or detestable she is in real life, she transforms into something else; usually the tragic heroine who ends up winning the sympathies of the audience. You know what I mean, if you have listened to even the slightest amount of scuttlebutt regarding opera singers. But there is a problem, even here: Strauss’ music for Ariadne is so deep, only Renée Flemming can sing it without meaning it (yes, you get it right, I do not like Renée Flemming in Strauss – she should stick to the alternative things she occasionally does, like that “Dark Hope” album). Take a moment to appreciate, for example, the aria “Es gibt ein Reich” performed by THE Ariadne of the previous generation Jessye Norman. If you do not get moved to your core by the music, the words and the interpretation, then you do not deserve to be called a member of the human race!
Ariadne the heroine undergoes a major change by the end of the opera. That change is not brought on by Zerbinetta’s intermezzi, but by the arrival of Dionysos, who, through Ariadne, realizes his divine potential. Those last twenty minutes of the opera contain some of the most hopeful and comforting words for every broken heart out there; and the music is simply perfect in all its exuberance and eloquence.
By all accounts then, the Prima Donna/Ariadne character is the least surprising in the triad. Nonetheless, she remains the central character of this work, by being the embodiment of transformation (a necessary feature in pretty much every Straussian opera) for the female soul.
There are some other characters as well; probably the most important one is the Tenor/Dionysos one. But I am being feminist today and I will leave the male part of this opera out of this discussion. And, let’s be honest people, they hardly make an impression on us here! They simply are a collective representation of the real men in our lives, ranging from kind hearted, lonely and outright understanding to egotistical, drunk and only interested in a quick shag (the three girls singing the Nymphs in the opera, while they have some really beautiful music written for them, do not ever become real characters, so they are not really worth mentioning).
Alright, so now that we are done with the main – and only – characters, I suppose it is only right to address some of the more serious questions. First and foremost, what are we to understand under this peculiar division of the work into a Prologue and an Opera? Fascinating, isn’t it? What one single word can do? It does not say “1st Act” or “Introduction” or “That part which comes before the middle”, no, it says “Prologue”. And that means the world to this work. First of all, you can expect to get some kind of exposition in this part of the play. And indeed you get it. Secondly, you expect to meet some of the key players of the play, obviously. And thirdly, you expect this to be relatively short, because prologues are usually short, otherwise they wouldn’t be prologues. Again, you are quite right. But then the question arises: is this the kind of prologue that is insignificant to the rest of the work, or is something occurring in that prologue going to come back in the future of the play or is it just a whole lot of nothing, justifying its existence simply by the brilliant and lively music it involves? I believe I have provided with some answers to those questions in the above “treatise”. And the one that really matters is this: this work is entirely left to the discrete interpretation of the director (and occasionally the opera house) involved. For example, both productions I know from the Metropolitan Opera in New York (the old one with Jessye Norman and the new one with Deborah Voigt, both of whom I adore) treat the work as having two separate parts. They even have the cast members not returning for the Opera come and take a bow at the end of the Prologue! And then there are the “European” readings where by an overwhelming 95% the work is treated as a whole and most of the times the Composer remains present on stage. Now, as we all know, the Metropolitan is the absolute stronghold of puritanic and perfectly clean performances, which means that the directorial interpretations of Ariadne auf Naxos that can be found on DVD’s are fairly traditional. Change continents and you get all sorts of curious stuff, with the most curious one probably being the production from Zurich, with Elena Mosuc as Zerbinetta. It offered an interesting reading on the relationship between the Composer and Prima Donna/Ariadne, but it was slightly farfetched, to be perfectly honest - you can get an idea from this trailer.
All kinds of things have been done with this work, because it is so open to interpretation and because the main characters are so fantastically drawn. Believe me when I say that I have seen many different productions of this particular work. Most of them not live, but recorded, but I am quite versed on the numerous interpretations out there. There are two that I particularly like, one of them has been released for posterity, the other one – while there is a recording definitely, it has not been released and that is so so terribly sad. I do hope that the Bavarian State Opera will someday make a Blu-Ray of it, because it is the most perfect production ever made, in my humble opinion. The first one I mean is from Dresden with Sophie Koch as the Composer. It was an unusual staging, but actually very fitting for our times. The idea made sense and it was not vulgar - again you can get an idea from the trailer.
The one from Munich, was a production by Robert Carsen, with a stellar cast in its day, Adrienne Pieczonka as Prima Donna/Ariadne, Diana Damrau as Zerbinetta and Daniela Sindram as the Composer. I will only say this: when I first saw this production during its original run in the Summer Opera Festival of Munich in July 2008, I left the theatre in tears and I couldn’t stop crying all the way back home! Since then I have seen it a couple more times – no Diana Damrau both times, but you only get that lucky once in a lifetime – and I was equally affected. Of course by the third time, I had finally the chance to grasp certain details concealed in the staging, that revealed Mr. Carsen’s intention for the Composer and Zerbinetta - here is the trailer for that production as well.
It has always been a dream of mine to stage this particular work, but after seeing this production, I am afraid that I would never dare to go near it, for fear of making a terrible copy of this truly fabulous production. Now, the only thing left for me and this particular work, is to have the pleasure of experiencing Anja Harteros in the role of Prima Donna. I firmly believe that she has the potential to be THE Ariadne of my generation.
So, there you have it. I am sure I have failed to answer all the questions I originally asked. But I did warn you: this work is so close to my heart, that I cannot possibly begin to put it in words. The only thing I can urge you to do, is to either find the closest opera house near you performing this work and go see it, or check out some of the past productions on the Internet. You have to have your own opinion of this work, I’m afraid…
P.S.: The very first paragraph of this entry was written in July 2014, during a lovely open-air concert in Munich, that included Diana Damrau singing some of Strauss’ Lieder. I attempted to finish the entry during August, the time when the Metropolitan was having some serious problems with its unions and the season was in danger of being delayed or even cancelled! I had some rather ironic remarks back then on that subject. But, since it was impossible for me to find the words for everything else, this point became moot and therefore, I had to rework the entry multiple times. This one, I must say, was a real bitch!
P.S. 2: This entry has double the length of every other entry I have made thus far. In case you missed that little detail!
Fan Fact: Natalie Dessay and Diana Damrau (both exceptional Zerbinetta’s) have actually performed together in a production of Ariadne auf Naxos. Obviously they couldn’t both be Zerbinetta at that time and Dessay was the more famous one, so she sang Zerbinetta and Damrau was one of the Nymphs! Cool, right?