This December will be my first time performing the role of Zerbinetta in its entirety, but I’ve known it was practically designed for me since I first laid eyes on it. That’s why in college I wrote a music history paper on Ariadne auf Naxos. I can’t say its my best writing- I mean it was undergrad music history class in a conservatory, I wasn’t overly concerned with my prose (I probably spent 4 weeks reading and researching and then wrote the whole thing the night before)- but hopefully you can still get something out of it. I’m not going to have my adult self fact-check my 2001-self’s research, but I’m pretty sure it’s right on. So, enjoy!
The Making (and Re-Making) of Ariadne auf Naxos
In a letter to Richard Strauss, a letter discussing many operas and current projects, Hugo von Hofmannsthal mentions as an aside:
“…and by this I mean something important, not the thirty minute opera for small chamber orchestra which is as good as complete in my head; it is called Ariadne auf Naxos and 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 throughout interwoven with the heroic…” (3/20/1911)
This concept was the beginning of the generation of Ariadne auf Naxos, a unique opera by Strauss and Hofmannsthal. The process of creating this opera would be a difficult one for both librettist and composer, and would be drawn out over several years. Originally conceived as incidental music and interludes for a Molière play, Ariadne later became a self-standing opera, following its relative failure throughout Germany. Today it is a beloved piece in the standard opera repertoire. But its history is troubled and messy.
Hofmannsthal originally wanted to create this piece as a tribute to Max Reinhardt, who was the director who premiered Der Rosenkavalier. He saw the Molière play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme in France and decided that it would be perfect for the project. The play has five interludes for ballet and song. Hofmannsthal reworked the play to fit into two acts, and Strauss wrote the music for the interludes. The highlight of the evening was to be the final “interlude.” It was to be a performance that the main character had arranged for: a new opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. So the audience would watch the classic Molière comedy with incidental music, and then see the premier of a new opera by Richard Strauss worked into the play.
The Molière comedy dates from 1670. It tells the story of a bourgeois (middle-class) man, Monsieur Jourdain, who is obsessed with being seen as a gentleman, a member of the upper class. He makes a complete fool of himself, hiring music, dance, fencing, and philosophy instructors, having outrageous outfits made for himself, and attempting to court a Marchioness- all to the shame and embarrassment of his wife and daughter. The action of the play involves a Count who flatters him to keep borrowing money from him, who is truly himself courting the Marchioness; his daughter, Lucile, who is in love with a bourgeois man, Cléonte, whom her father will not allow her to marry because he is not a gentleman (although the script makes it clear that he is truly in the same class as the Jourdain); and the maid, Nicole, who is in love with the Cléonte’s valet, Covielle. Cléonte disguises himself as the “Son of the Grand Turk” (with Covielle as “translator”), in love with Lucile, who will promote M. Jourdain to a position of nobility in Turkish society and marry his daughter. M. Jourdain undergoes a humiliating “initiation,” and agrees to the marriage. At this point, the evening’s entertainment that M. Jourdain is sponsoring will take place. This was to be the opera Ariadne auf Naxos, which Strauss and Hofmannsthal would write.
Strauss wasn’t very interested in this project at first. He was looking forward to another collaboration they were planning, Die Frau ohne Schatten. He frequently brought it up in his letters, eagerly awaiting the completion of the libretto, as he found his other present work, such as symphonies, much duller. But eventually Strauss as well became caught up in this exciting project. When Hofmannsthal first sent him the libretto, Strauss’s reaction was not negative, but cool enough to offend Hofmannsthal. The story of the opera is about the legend of Ariadne, a princess abandoned by her lover, Theseus, on the island of Naxos. She is in extreme depression and awaits only death, but then the god Bacchus comes to her. At first believing him to be death, she asks him to take her away. They quickly fall in love. This story is decorated by comic characters from the Commedia dell’arte, who try to cheer up Ariadne. Strauss’s cold reception of the libretto inspired Hofmannsthal to explain the meaning behind the story.
“Zerbinetta is in her element drifting out of the arms of one man into the arms of another; Ariadne could be the wife or mistress of one man only, just as she can be only one man’s widow, can be forsaken by only one man. One thing, however, is still left even for her: the miracle, the God. To him she gives herself, for she believes him to be Death: he is both Death and Life at once; he it is who reveals to her the immeasurable depths in her own nature, who makes of her an enchantress, the sorceress who herself transforms the poor little Ariadne; he it is who conjures up for her in this world another world beyond, who preserves her for us and at the same time transforms her.
“But what to divine souls is a real miracle, is to the earth-bound nature of Zerbinetta just an every-day love affair. She sees in Ariadne’s experience the only thing she can see: the exchange of an old lover for a new one. And so these two spiritual worlds are in the end ironically brought together in the only way in which they can be brought together: in non-comprehension (7/1911).”
Strauss now understood the opera much more clearly and was better pleased with it. But he warned Hofmannsthal that if he, the composer, couldn’t understand it right away, how could the public, and much less the critics? For this reason, Hofmannsthal had the libretto published in a literary journal before the opera’s premiere.
The collaboration was taking off at last- but clashes between the two artists arose on every topic. They had disagreements about characters, the ending, act divisions, and other assorted topics. Hofmannsthal was often upset at Strauss’s suggestions, and Strauss had a hard time dealing with Hofmannsthal’s impractical temperament. Some of the biggest arguments came not, however, over the content of the opera, but over its production. Hofmannsthal was vehement about wanting Reinhardt to direct the opera. In a lengthy letter to Strauss, he goes on and on about the subject:
“How am I to write a single line of Die Frau ohne Schatten if, over this affair, you not only upset my own relations with Max Reinhardt- and who, in the feverish world of the theatre, would ever get over a disappointment like that?- but face me with the certain prospect of having to abandon altogether every hope of Reinhardt’s assistance in the preparation of this future work; subtle and allergic to all routine as it is bound to be, and so of having to do without the very help I need about all else?…I beg of you, do not inflict on me this injury; do not injure us both, do not injure our relationship!… The subtly conceived exiguity of this play, these two groups acting beside each other in the narrowest space, this most careful calculation of each gesture, each step, the whole like a concert and at the same time like a ballet- it will be lost, meaningless, a tattered rag in incompetent hands; only in Reinhardt’s, yours and mine, can it grow into a singing flower, the incarnation of dance (12/18/1911).”
Reinhardt was finally secured for the premiere. But the location of the premiere was another problem to be worked out. The original plan was to have it at the Deutsches Theater, but Strauss realized that the theatre would be inappropriate for the play-opera. They considered many cities and finally decided on Stuttgart. Hofmannsthal had objections, but not strong enough to convince Strauss, who saw no other possibilities.
After many cast changes, the show finally premiered in Stuttgart on October 25, 1912. But the audience did not take kindly to the performance. The theatre-going crowd didn’t know what to make of the opera, and the opera-lovers were unhappy about sitting through 2 hours of Molière before getting to the opera. Critics were very hard on Hofmannsthal’s libretto. One critic writes, “Hofmannsthal adds nothing to his fame by his mutilation of the Molière comedy and the weak libretto. It is difficult to see wherein his fame is justified any how, for the Rosenkavalier libretto, too, has many objectionable features. Strauss swears by him but the operatic world does not, and it, after all, has a weighty word to speak” (Finck 266).
Eventually, Strauss and Hofmannsthal decided that the only way to save their creation is to give it a complete reworking. In 1913, they began to talk of a revision. The original plan was to take the transition scene that Hofmannsthal had written between the play and the opera, and change it to secco recitative. Instead, Hofmannsthal reworked the transition scene into a prologue. They abandoned the Molière altogether, and instead the plot focused only on the opera performance. The Prologue, extended from the original transition scene, now starred the Composer as the leading role. The characters from the opera seria and the burlesque are informed at the last minute that their performances are to run simultaneously. Zerbinetta, the lead comedienne, flirts with the composer, who agrees to the change in order to have his work performed. The curtain closes on the Prologue just as the curtain is about to go up on the opera, with the composer furiously making cuts in his music at the last minute. Then the opera itself is performed, much as planned, but without the comments thrown in by the Molière characters that were present in the original. Some other changes are made- Zerbinetta’s virtuosic aria, for one, is considerably cut and simplified. The opera was performed in this manner for the first time in 1916, and was much better received than the original version had been.
Today, the 1916 version is the only one that one is likely to see performed. But some people prefer the 1912 version. The two versions are so different that it is difficult to compare them. This opera had a challenging formation, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal succeeded in what they set out to do: they made the piece succeed, and become a well-loved part of the standard repertoire, even to this day.
Finck, Henry T. Richard Strauss: The Man and his Works. Lille, Brown & Company, Boston, 1917. Pg. 264-272.
Gilliam, Bryon. The Life of Richard Strauss. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1999. Pg. 96-101.
Hartmann, Rudolf. Richard Strauss: The Staging of his Operas and Ballets. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981. Pg. 90-107.
Kennedy, Michael. Richard Strauss: Man, Musician, Enigma. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 1999. Pgs. 174-188.
Lehmann, Lotte. Five Operas and Richard Strauss. The Macmillan Company, New York, 1964. 1-22.
Molière. The Middle-Class Gentleman: A Translation of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. Trans. Herma Briffault. Barron’s Educational Services, Inc., New York, 1957.
A Working Friendship: The Correspondance between Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Trans. Hanns Hammelmann and Ewald Osers. Vienna House, New York, 1961. Pg. 75-139, 152-153, 169-172, 241-250.