January 19, 2014

A tourist's guide to Naxos, Strauss-style

There was a time in my life when I was an opera-lover, as opposed to an opera professional. My experience in the opera world had been limited to singing in the chorus for the Indiana University Opera Theater in my college days, moonlighting from the piano studies that were my major.
Know what that red thing is? Yep: Naxos

My tastes ran to the Italian repertoire. Like many casual operaphiles, I was lukewarm towards Wagner; I pretty much fell in line with Rossini's famous bon mot about beautiful moments and awful quarter-hours. Richard Strauss? I knew the Dance of the Seven Veils, but otherwise only knew tone poems and assorted lieder.

My current employer, Virginia Opera, last staged Ariadne auf Naxos in 1990. I was teaching music courses at Norfolk's Old Dominion University at that time. My wife and I took in a performance; it was my first experience with the piece.

Here's what I remember:

  1. Blythe Walker, the artist portraying Zerbinetta, did a cartwheel across the stage while singing. Whoa! 
  2. The second half of the show, the Ariadne opera section, went on and on and on and on.....
My fear is that those of you about to make your first acquaintance with this opera will leave the theater similarly inclined to think that Zerbinetta is a hoot, and the Ariadne part is boring.

IT'S NOT! Oh, Cherished Readers, how I wish I could go back in time, knowing then what I know now. I learned the key to appreciating the entirety of Ariadne and, if you're new to the work, I will now share it with you.

You see, the problem is that the Prologue, a witty and sardonic portrait of backstage opera politics, with deadly caricatures of dumb-as-mud tenors, temperamental prima donnas, foppish choreographers, paranoid and disrespected composers, and (above all) ignorant-yet-condescending unmusical "arts patrons" is wonderfully theatrical. It would work just fine as a spoken play with no music at all. 

But the second half - the "performance" of the "opera seria" created by the young "Composer", is as theatrically static as the Prologue is manic. 

Not much happens.

For real: a drippy dame named Ariadne mopes around, sighing and weeping, weeping and sighing. Some nymphs watch her and go "tsk". The comedians comment about her like a vaudevillian Greek chorus and caper about. A tenor comes and he and Ariadne sing at each other for several minutes. Curtain.

Static, static, static. So: nothing to look forward to, right?

NO! NO, NO, NO!! Lots to look forward to; to savor; to relish; to enjoy; to love.  What you need is to love this part for what it is and not hate it for what it isn't. Here's the secret:

Don't think of it as theater; think of it as a concert; a concert consisting of one dreamy, luscious, soaring, majestic, heart-breakingly beautiful musical moment after another. No kidding! The Ariadne section of Ariadne is a banquet of magnificent musical highlights.

The thing is, NOT ONE of these highlights has attained iconic status; the type of familiarity with average music-lovers we associate with "Nessun dorma" "Celeste Aida", "Musetta's waltz"; "The Ride of the Valkyries"; "The Toreador Song", and a thousand others.

Why is that? I have no idea. And it's a definite problem. Opera audiences famously like what they already know and have mortal fear of the unfamiliar. I get it; an hour's worth of "new" music can cause the human brain to flip the off-switch.

But YOU, Cherished Reader; you CAN become familiar with Ariadne's second-half music. All you need is a road-map; a train of thought through the scene; a sense of what cool music is coming up next. And here it is, courtesy of your operatic mapmaker, me.

  1. IT'S A NYMPH-FEST! About 10 minutes in or so, counting the orchestral prelude, the three Nymphs sing a beguiling trio in which they agree that they've become so used to Ariadne's weeping they scarcely hear it any more. The words don't matter; they could be singing the white pages of the Norfolk phone book; what matters is the h.e.a.v.e.n.l.y manner in which their voices intertwine in blissful arabesques. God, it's gorgeous. Musical Nirvana. Next, you'll hear
  2. ARIADNE'S FIRST BIG SOLO, known as "Ein Schönes war", it is the aria in which she laments the loss of her lover Theseus. She comes close to inventing modern couple names like "Bennifer" for Ben and Jennifer, singing of the "beautiful thing Theseus-Ariadne". Another minute and she'd have though of "Theriadne", heh heh. But again, the music is the thing. This is noble and aristocratic music of regret and nostalgia, with the word "Schönes" spun out luxuriously over several glorious bars. The aria calls for an effortless high range, with the kind of pianissimo high notes that will give you pleasurable chills.
    When she's done, listen for 
  3. A TUNEFUL SERENADE from Harlequin. Strauss is notorious for writing for tenors in a way that turns them into red-faced shrieking maniacs, but he was kind to lower-voiced men like Harlequin. There's not much "operatic" about this light-hearted attempt to cheer up Ariadne; it's closer to cabaret than Clytemnestra. It just might stick in your ear, and you just might be humming it on the way home.
    Close on his heels comes
  4. AN EVEN MORE GORGEOUS ARIA FOR ARIADNE! Do we think it's a coincidence that her name starts with "Aria"? We do not. Here we are treated to "Es gibt ein Reich", in which she sings about her approaching death as though it was two weeks in Las Vegas. Boy, is she excited! Okay, I sound snarky, but the concluding section of this solo will lift you out of your seat. Passion is passion, folks, whether aimed at Leonardo Di Caprio or at Death's Messenger, and Ariadne sings with such mounting ecstasy that it's actually thrilling.
    But before you can even catch your breath comes:
  5. A FANTASTICAL VAUDEVILLE NUMBER from the comedians. I've changed my mind: THIS is the tune you'll be humming on the way home. It's toe-tapping. It's catchy. It's clever. It's kind of intoxicating. What's happening as the quintet sings? Nothing, really - they're just fooling around. No big deal. You are permitted to close your eyes and just let the good tunes roll. By the way, is it totally impossible that Richard Rogers was thinking of this number when he came up with the tune for "Surry with the fringe on top"? Probably - but they are similar for sure.
    Uh-oh, hold on to your hats, here comes:
  6. A LOLLIPALOOZA OF A COLORATURA SHOW-PIECE. This would be Zerbinetta's “Grossmächtige Prinzessin”. a ridiculously entertaining monologue, with or without cartwheels. Strauss intended this aria to out-do every other coloratura solo ever written, including Lucia di Lammermoor's Mad Scene, the Queen of the Night arias by Mozart, and every other damn thing. And he did it - in spades. Now flirty, now mock-dramatic, now spewing scales and high E's like a Fourth of July fireworks show, Zerbinetta takes the prize, amen, halleluia, world without end. The melody starting the Rondo of the aria, shown below, is a dead-ringer for Donizetti's melodic style:
    But there's ;more! Do you like a good waltz? I hope so, because now comes
  7. A REALLY GOOD WALTZ. Although he's no relation to Johann Strauss Jr., Richard Strauss showed in Der Rosenkaalier that he could compete for a spot in the Waltz Hall of Fame. At this point in Ariadne, the comedians have a dramatically pointless but delicious quintet in which the four dudes try to hook up with Zerbinetta. Ignore that. Just wallow in the utter Viennese glory of the fabulous waltz-tune Strauss serves up. It's Rosenkavalier all over again, if you just close your eyes. Now it's time for the hero Bacchus to show up, but first sit back and enjoy
  8. ANOTHER INSANELY BEAUTIFUL NYMPH TRIO. I read the other day that Queen Elizabeth, bless her, dislikes dissonant music. In this regard she resembles pretty much 94.9 per cent of all opera-goers. If you fit that description, pay particular attention to this trio. It's as harmonically unadventurous as it is sublimely beautiful. I'm thinking of adapting it into an anthem for my church choir - no fooling.
    Give in to utter sweetness of sonority, then get ready for
  9. ARIACCHUS. See what I did there? Combined "Ariadne" and "Bacchus" to make a new celebrity couple mash-up. I'm good at this! Bacchus enters to music that, in its testosterone-infused, utterly macho swagger, is like a slap in the face, musically. There follows a love duet. This love duet is not a typical specimen of the genre, in that while Bacchus is ready to "get down to bidness" with Ariadne, her attraction to him is anything but erotic. She's all "I await transformation to the next world" and he's all "Golly you're pretty. I'd tap that." Regardless, while falling short of Wagner's "Liebesnacht" (as all subsequent love duets were doomed to do), this duet reaches a suitably ecstatic and blissful climax, leading to 
  10. A REPRISE OF THE INSANELY BEAUTIFUL NYMPH TRIO while the two lovers either ascend into the heavens or disappear into Ariadne's cave, depending on how you interpret the story.
Any of these numbers could and should be as famous as the highlights we all know from, say, Turandot. Commit this list of 10 highlights to memory if you'll be seeing Ariadne for the first time. Really focus on the sumptuous, richly-orchestrated feast of inspired music, replete with Strauss's famous expertise in writing for the soprano voice as few other composers ever did. 


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