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Side view of theater at dusk with white baffles

Merriment Meets Melancholy in Ariadne auf Naxos

By Craig Smith


Merriment Meets Melancholy in Ariadne auf Naxos

Intrigue challenges idealism. Exaltation encounters expediency. These opposing yet ultimately reconciled elements are at the core of Richard Strauss’s delightful Ariadne auf Naxos, which returns to Santa Fe in the 2018 season as Tim Albery directs and James Gaffigan makes his Santa Fe conducting debut.

The plot is clever. The richest man in Vienna, lavishly entertaining friends, has brought in two theatrical troupes. The first will present a serious opera on the myth of Ariadne abandoned by Theseus on the isle of Naxos. The second will offer a saucy romp about affairs of the heart, naughty dalliance, and jealousy. When the dinner takes longer than expected, the patron decrees that the two performances must take place simultaneously, so as not to interfere with a big fireworks display. The resulting mix of stories and styles seesaws between laughter and heartbreak, with love as the all-important balance point.

The original version of Ariadne premiered in 1912. The concept was to present a full-length performance of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, with incidental music by Strauss, followed by a short opera. Clocking in at some six hours, it proved to be too much for the average audience member’s patience and bodily comfort. So Strauss’ friend and librettist, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, suggested a rewrite in which a prologue would set the stage for the ensuing combined opera and burlesque. This version premiered in 1916 and is the one almost always performed today.

Thanks to Strauss’ soaring melodies and rich harmonies, allied with von Hoffmansthal’s carefully crafted libretto, Ariadne is both musically fetching and dramatically apt. The near-slapstick aspects of the Prologue are balanced by the anguish of the young Composer, forced to cut his beloved opera to pieces on a wealthy man’s whim. At the same time, his belief in love as the highest and purest of feelings gets a shock when he encounters Zerbinetta, the minx and moving spirit of the comedic band, and a firm believer in love as a transitory if pleasant whirl. The blithe mix of comedy and tragedy in the ensuing opera is emotionally vivid, sonically luscious, and wonderfully amusing — Strauss and von Hoffmansthal at their inspired best.