Wagner Notes

Bryan Gilliam
May 2022

This is a Wagner newsletter, and I am writing about Strauss, but there is an important Wagner connection to Ariadne, perhaps less a connection than a push-back. Hofmannsthal and Strauss wanted to redefine a Gesamtkunstwerk for the 20th century, one where the divergent art forms work all and severally, eac0h component retaining its integrity.  Hofmannsthal’s criticism of Elektra (1909) was that his text was swamped by the music (“like rich gravy on fine roast beef”). His later self-criticism of Der Rosenkavalier (1910) was that there was too much text. That search for middle ground took the form of Ariadne auf Naxos, initially a theatrical experiment that turned out to be their most prolonged operatic project, spanning some six years. Hofmannsthal believed that from this experiment he could learn how to create a libretto where musical numbers regain their “paramount importance.”

The model for a modern Gesamtkunstwerk was to be found neither in German music drama nor the 19th century, for that matter, but in the French baroque, more specifically the comédie-ballet, which included singing, dance, and the spoken word. Strauss, too, was eager to get away from the aura of Bayreuth and its metaphysical associations, and he followed Hofmannsthal’s lead, though, at first, not enthusiastically. The poet’s plan was to construct a divertissement at the end of a truncated version of Moliere’s play, Le bourgeois gentilhomme, where five acts became two and instead of the final “Turkish Ceremony,” there would be an “Opera” instead.  The original contours of their opera seemed simple enough: two opposing worlds—seria and commedia—both in the spirit of Molière. The opera libretto provided ample opportunities for dance, solos, duets, trios, even a quintet. Hofmannsthal encouraged Strauss to express himself on a reduced (i.e., non-Wagnerian) scale.

Strauss threw himself into the work, complete with incidental music for the Play and six convincing numbers for the Opera: 1) double aria for Ariadne (“Ein schönes war”/ “Es gibt ein Reich”), 2) Harlekin’s Song, 3) Zerbinetta’s coloratura aria (“Grossmächtige Prinzessin”), 4) male buffo quartet + Zerbinetta, 5) male buffo trio, and 6) finale (Ariadne and Bacchus). Premiered in 1912, it was, simply put, a flop: neither play nor opera. Poet and composer rightly ditched the play and created a chatty Prologue rich with behind-the-scenes jokes and a light “tutorial” on the meaning of the Opera, especially its focus on transformation: Bacchus and Ariadne become a god and goddess. This revised work (Prologue and Opera) of four years later was a success, and it is nearly always performed in this way.

On the surface, the “Opera” would seem to be about the classic pairing of Bacchus and Ariadne, immortalized in Titian’s greatest painting, but Strauss was not fond of tenors, and, though he did not cut Bacchus from the score, he made it an opera about the major dualities of life, manifested by Ariadne and Zerbinetta: fidelity-promiscuity, eternal-momentary, transcendence-illusion, negation-acceptance. A third and shorter leg of this triangle is the Composer, a mezzo, who creates Ariadne, but who also (momentarily) falls in love with Zerbinetta.

Elijah Moshinsky, the Australian (post)modernist, directed this 1993 production. Part One, The Prologue, is set in its original, almost hyper-realistic 18th-century setting; it is a very busy, active stage, which is fun, but risks overshadowing the main themes at hand, especially the ways in which The Composer must negotiate the transient and the everlasting, finding the solution in transformation. Stronger, more impassioned acting by the striking Isabel Leonard (Composer) might have helped, though her passion came across better on HD, which I saw after the March 12th matinée. Leonard is a wonderful high mezzo, the ideal match for this trouser role, which was originally conceived for regular soprano. I enjoyed seeing Wolfgang Brendel in the role of the Major-Domo, a speaking role, a switch from his role as the Music Master in past Met performances. It was over-acting at its best as he mixed aspects of ennui with the fussy and intolerant.

From hyper-realism we go to surrealism for The Opera, where the stage is stripped of the setting promised by the backstage of the Prologue. Instead, we have a flat, beautifully lit back wall with stars, including the Northern Crown, which Bacchus, according to legend, created by throwing Ariadne’s crown into the sky. There is no scenery as such, just panels in the back that open and shut with commedia characters coming in and out, and, of course, opening up in the end as hero and heroine walk to the ship.

And speaking of stars, Lise Davidsen was simply tremendous, on the verge of superstardom; she has great power but also vocal nuance, a sheen that is both bright silver and burnished gold. Her mezzo-soprano beginnings served her well for this opera, especially in those moments when she refers to death, as Strauss reaches downward to the realm of death (“Totenreich”); only Jessye Norman did better in that marvelous low phrase. At 6’1”, Davidsen is a unique, statuesque presence, which makes acting, especially in the female role, more challenging. But Ariadne really doesn’t have much to do in this production, which was originally designed for Jessye Norman, whose movements were limited in her mid- to late-career. Davidsen’s voice will not reach its pinnacle for several years; I hope she chooses her roles wisely: Ariadne, Marschallin, Chrysothemis, Countess; and Sieglinde, Elsa, Eva, or Elizabeth. She has already recorded a magnificent Agathe and Leonore with Janowski, which I highly recommend.

Davidsen’s counterpart, Brenda Rae as Zerbinetta, was not at the same artistic level. Zerbinetta is one of the most challenging coloratura roles in the operatic repertoire. Rae sang well, but with an effort that audiences should not have to notice, as her character is flighty, whimsical, and carefree. Her male counterpart, Sean Michael Plumb, made his Met debut as Harlekin, and it was a great success; we look forward to future Met productions with this wonderful baritone.

Strauss did not like tenors, and he proved it again in Ariadne with the heldentenor role of Bacchus who is frequently intentionally put in sonic danger against Ariadne or the full-tilt orchestra. Few tenors (James King and Jess Thomas are exceptions) have ever been able to cut through the Straussian polyphonic thicket, and Brandon Jovanovich did admirably well. He brought warmth and lyricism to a role that many tenors prefer to “bark.”

It was a thrill to see Marek Janowski in the Met pit again; I hadn’t seen him live since his Met Arabella in 1984, though his last performance at Lincoln Center was Salome in 1989. He is a great Straussian and a man of moral conviction. While most careerist conductors might give in when confronted with an unacceptable piece of Regietheater (often in conflict with the composer’s wishes), Janowski refuses to participate, so much so that he stopped conducting live opera altogether in the early 1990s. His Wagner recordings are exemplary, especially his Ring and Tristan und Isolde, and though his Strauss recordings are smaller in number, his experience with the composer in live performance is vast: Salome, Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, and Arabella (his Met debut in 1984). Nonetheless, he remains a leading Strauss-Wagner conductor today. Born in Poland and trained in Germany, Janowski excels in the German operatic repertoire, which means that he maintains an ideal balance between voices and orchestra, does not get overwhelmed by counterpoint, or intoxicated by the Teutonic sound; to the contrary, the conductor should intoxicate the audience, as he did on March 12th, with the 38-piece “chamber” orchestra: gorgeous colors in the strings, wind, and brass, as well as phantasmagoric sounds in the harmonium, celeste, and harp. We can only hope for more Davidsen-Janowski collaborations at the Met in the near future. They apparently love working together in the recording studio and on the stage. And we love that, too.

© Wagner Notes, May 2022, a publication of the Wagner Society of New York. All rights reserved.

Bryan Gilliam,

having served many years on the musicology faculty at Duke University where he is now Professor Emeritus,  has published five books on Strauss, the latest one being Rounding Wagner’s Mountain: Richard Strauss and Modern German Opera (Cambridge, 2014).