"Ariadne auf Naxos": The Harmony of the Whole

"Ariadne auf Naxos": The Harmony of the Whole

Best-laid plans often go awry. In the case of Ariadne auf Naxos, what was originally intended to be an “interim work” overtook the attention of librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal and composer Richard Strauss for five years. The plan was for a short opera to serve as the intermezzo during Hofmannsthal’s version of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, but it soon developed into a two-part opera in its own right. The complex gestation was, in fact, part of the work itself, in which various factions fight for artistic supremacy, just as it was reflective of Hofmannsthal and Strauss’ working relationship. In its final version, first seen in 1916, the pair’s Ariadne auf Naxos offers an amusingly perceptive account of the act of creating opera. 

It was shortly after the riotous success of Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier, in Dresden on January 26, 1911, that the idea for Ariadne auf Naxos was born. Poet and composer were household names, with theaters rushing to produce their new comedy, and the time was right for a sequel. They discussed the  Babylonian Queen Semiramis as a potential subject, but that was quickly dismissed. Then came a mythological scenario entitled Das steinere Herz, which would eventually morph into Die Frau ohne Schatten, but by March 1911 Strauss was instead talking about a “little Molière piece.” This was what Hofmannsthal referred to as “the 30-minute opera for small chamber orchestra” entitled Ariadne auf Naxos. 

[It] is made up of a combination of heroic mythological figures in 18th-century costume with hooped skirts and ostrich feathers and, interwoven in it, characters from the commedia dell’arte; harlequins and scaramouches representing the buffo element, which is interwoven with the heroic. […] It can, I believe, turn into something most charming, a new genre which to all appearances reaches back to a much earlier one, just as all development goes in cycles. 

Although he began to work on the project, Strauss was not entirely convinced by the plan. “Ariadne may turn out very pretty,” he wrote to Hofmannsthal, “however, as the dramatic framework is rather thin, everything will depend on the poetic execution.” Hofmannsthal had provided what he called a “slight scaffold,” giving Strauss “the opportunity of expressing on a reduced scale,” but then went on to write a manifestly psychological version of the Greek myth of Ariadne, who has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. Unfortunately, Strauss was not made aware of this shift in mood until he received a pointed letter from Hofmannsthal in July of 1911. Like the characters in their opera, composer and librettist were not on the same page. Strauss, like the commedia dell’arte players, had imagined a short, comic di- vertissement, while Hofmannsthal had turned philosopher and, arguably, forgotten about the people Strauss referred to as “the dumb oxen in the audience.” 

When the original version reached the stage, directed by Max Reinhardt and produced at the Court Theatre in Stuttgart on October 25, 1912, it lasted six hours, with Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s opera occupying 90 minutes of that total running time. The “dumb oxen” did their worst: those who had come for the opera were bored by the Molière; and, conversely, the inveterate theatregoers were nonplussed by a bizarre opera in which dryads and nymphs vied for attention with a sassy bunch of strolling players. While further productions took place, including in Zurich, Prague, and Munich, Hofmannsthal and Strauss’ new work failed to live up to the triumph of Der Rosenkavalier. A shift in focus was needed, one that was to result in the ingenious second version of Ariadne auf Naxos, first seen in Vienna, the city in which it is set, on October 4, 1916. 

The roots of this revision are to be found in Hofmannsthal’s letter to Strauss of July 1911. Irritated by the latter’s lack of understanding, the former wrote in particularly bald terms: 

What it is about is one of the straightforward and stupendous problems of life: fidelity; whether to hold fast to that which is lost, to cling to it even unto death — or to live, to live on, to get over it, to transform oneself, to sacrifice the integrity of the soul and yet in this transmutation to preserve one’s essence, to remain a human being. 

This “transmutation” would have to find voice in a new version, in which the “confusion” (Hofmannsthal’s own word) between the collaborators might likewise be solved. And although the librettist’s letter was typically long- winded, it unlocked Strauss’ innate sensitivity to the predicaments of his characters, as he had already shown with Chrysothemis longing for children in Elektra or the Marschallin mourning the loss of her youth in Der Rosenkavalier. 

Working together, Hofmannsthal and Strauss decided to replace the framing Molière play with a new Prologue of their own, in which the figures depicted in the opera would be seen preparing for its performance. As in the Molière, the opera would remain a divertissement, mounted for the “richest man in Vienna,” who, despite his affluence, consigns the performers to a grubby basement. He likewise has little patience for theatrical matters and so commands his Major- domo to ask the commedia dell’arte troupe and the singers to perform at the same time. Such a scheme made perfect sense of Hofmannsthal’s original vision, in which he imagined the interweaving of buffo and heroic elements. The motivations of the characters were equally made clear and so encouraged Strauss to revise his score. Interjections from the rich but clueless patron were cut and the opera was allowed to speak for itself. 

The revised version also provided Strauss and Hofmannsthal a much-needed opportunity to work through their differences. During the predominantly comic Prologue, the Composer movingly ponders the nature of collaboration: 

I see everything differently now! The depths of existence are immeasurable! My dear friend, there is not much in the world that cannot be put into words. Poets set down excellent words, yes, really excellent — and yet, and yet, and yet — I am filled with courage, with courage, my friend! The world is lovely and not fearful to the bold man. What is music, then? Music is a sacred art, which brings together all men of courage, like cherubim around a shining throne, and for this reason it is the most holy of the arts! 

He may then run off in despair, thinking his first opera is about to be ruined, but this final speech paves the way for its unique symbiosis of word and music, as well as its differing styles. Art reflects life, which is itself, here, a reflection of art. 

The difference between the Prologue and the Opera in Ariadne auf Naxos is beautifully marked in Strauss’ resourceful contrast of prose and poetry, recitative and aria. The music of the Prologue is suitably fragmented; here the group remains at loggerheads. And that situation is made no clearer than in the juxtaposition of Zerbinetta — whose flightiness is captured in dazzling coloratura — and the Composer, who unfortunately loves her. Relational incongruity is also to be found in the music of the opera, as Zerbinetta looks on bemusedly at the tragic Ariadne. And yet, despite this droll confusion, Strauss brings intense humanity to Ariadne’s “Ein Schönes war: hieß Theseus – Ariadne,” with its yearning interplay of solo lines. 

Ariadne’s emotional concentration makes the contrast with Harlequin’s “LiebenHassenHoffenZagen,” which quotes from Mozart, and Zerbinetta’s bel canto spectacular, “Großmächtige Prinzessin,” all the more marked. But it also prepares for the arrival of Bacchus, accompanied by a foreshadowing of the grand music of Die Frau ohne Schatten. The rich lyricism of this and the couple’s final “Gibt es kein Hinüber?” transforms all, finally unifying the opera’s charmingly disparate elements. Najade, Echo, and Dryade’s lullaby, evoking Schubert, now forms an integral part of the lovers’ duet. And even Zerbinetta’s final comment, “when the newest god approaches, we surrender, we are his,” emerges as if from one of Ariadne’s own phrases. “Above these contrasts,” Hofmannsthal and Strauss had, like their characters, discovered what the librettist called “the harmony of the whole.” 


GAVIN PLUMLEY is a writer and broadcaster. He has spoken frequently about Richard Strauss on the BBC and has written about the composer's life and work for opera houses, concerts halls, and festivals worldwide. Gavin in the commissioning editor of the English-language programme for the Salzburg Festival.