January 12, 2014

Ariadne auf Naxos and Turandot: kissin' cousins

With this post I begin a series of essays about Ariadne auf Naxos, the next opera to be staged in Virgina Opera's current season.

Signor Richard Strauss
Richard Strauss's idiosyncratic German comedy Ariadne auf Naxos, in the heavily-revised version that has become standard (and the the version Virginia Opera will be staging next month), premiered in 1916. A decade later, Giacomo Puccini's final opera Turandot saw the light of day in a performance respectfully ended by conductor Arturo Toscanini at the point where Puccini's work was cut short by death.

The one is an intellectual take on Greek mythology, with no chorus and a chamber orchestra. The prologue offers a cynical depiction of backstage hysteria at the opera house, with poison-pen caricatures of brainless tenors, foppish choreographers, paranoid composers and tempermental prima donnas. The tenor role is ungrateful, with no appealing solos. The suppporting soprano role of Zerbinetta is a dazzling coloratura. In its overall tone, the opera is extremely Teutonic.

The other is a highly romantic fairy tale with a giant orchestra, a huge chorus and one of Puccini's plummiest tenor roles, highlighted with the most iconic of all arias, "Nessun dorma". The supporting soprano role of Liu is a typical Puccian lyric spinto. In its overall tone, the opera couldn't be more Italianate, Chinese folk-tunes notwithstanding.

But guess what? The similarities between Ariadne and Turandot are so striking that I'm guessing Signor Puccini, a composer with great breadth of knowledge of the music of his times, made a particular study of Strauss's work. Now, I acknowledge that Wagner and Debussy were more obvious influences on Puccini; in her book The Romantic World of Puccini, Iris J. Arnenson describes at length how Wagner's Parsifal in particular casts a long shadow on some of Puccini's operas. But here I play the time-honored "It is what it is" card and draw your attention to these observations:

Herr Giacomo Puccini

  • Both operas are tales of love, loyalty unto death, and transformation. Yes, these themes play out quite differently but they're there to be seen. Ariadne has a love so deeply loyal to Theseus that she longs for death once he's left her. She can't imagine being with anyone else. But with the arrival of Bacchus, she is transformed into a new creature, perhaps achieving divinity (depending on which commentary you read). In Turandot, on the other hand, the example of love and loyalty embracing death is in the figure of Liu, whereas the princess herself is transformed by Calaf's kiss. In her case, rather than transformed into something divine and eternal, Turandot is transformed from her icy, powerful, goddess persona into something more warmly human: a woman in love.
  • The insertion of comic figures into a dramatic story. The entire premise of Ariadne is the intrusion of the Commedia dell'Arte characters Harlequin, Brighella, Scaramuccio and Truffaldino with, of course, Zerbinetta, into what the young Composer intended to be a spiritual and ultra-serious drama. Puccini himself had the idea (which he claimed to be borrowing from Shakespeare) of the three comic ministers Ping Pang and Pong, who clown around just at the moment when Calaf is trying to throw his hat into the ring as a suitor of Turandot.
  • The comedians in both operas have a similar message and function. In the Bill Murray comedy Stripes, Murray's character encountered an overly gung-ho recruit during basic training named Francis. At one point Murray turns to him and says "Lighten up, Francis", with that typical Bill Murray smug deadpan that still makes me laugh. That's essentially what the comedians are telling the love-struck protagonists in both Ariadne and Turandot. In the former, Zerbinetta and her pals assure Ariadne not to obsess over her loss of Theseus by saying, basically, that there are lots of fish in the sea. Another lover will come along. Ping Pang and Pong, laughing at Calaf's obsession with Turandot, ask "What is Turandot? Just flesh".
  • That whole obsession thing. Naturally, Calaf and Ariadne each ignore the Dear Abby-ish advice of their respective clowns because, you know, they're all obsessed and everything.
  • Final transformation duets aiming for the stars Bacchus is going to rescue Ariadne from her prison of grief by compelling her to fall in love with him. The duet in which this happens provides the final scene of the opera with soaring voices uniting as one in blissful yada yada yada. Calaf is going to rescue Turandot from her prison of vengeful anger by compelling her to fall in love with him. The duet in which this happens provides the final -- ...okay technically the next-to last scene (picky picky) of the opera with soaring voices uniting as one in blissful blah blah blah.

As a footnote, we can also discreetly suggest that there are critics who feel that neither of these duets, as familiar and beautiful as they undoubtedly are, exactly hit the bull's-eye in terms of measuring up to their composers' hopes. In Puccini's case, we'll never know exactly what he would have made of it as throat cancer left Turandot unfinished. The composer and music professor Franco Alfano did what he could, but at best the duet adds up to ersatz bliss no longer in Puccini's voice. We do know that Puccini was concerned about the duet; he expressed considerable angst about it to his colleagues and procrastinated getting around to it. 

As for Strauss, while there's nothing really wrong with the Ariadne-Bacchus warbling, the fact is that there have been very few love duets that have gone down as earth-shaking examples of ultimate eros. Once you've listed the duets in Tristan und Isolde and Madama Butterfly, the pickings are a bit slim. In Tosca, there's nothing transformational; the two characters have been hooking up for some time. Aida? Not Act 3, but the tomb scene comes close as it is somewhat transformational, preparing the two for death. But many of Verdi's love duets are interestingly unerotic, either playful or enthusiastic. I would also say that Strauss gave himself a tough act to follow in an opera with such sublime pieces as the Composer's aria, Ariadne's two arias and Zerbinetta's "Grossmaechtige Prinzessin".

To conclude: both Giacomo and Richard were probably doomed when they set about to write a lollapalooza transformational love duet after the music world already had Wagner's "Liebesnacht". I don't hold it against either of them, and I love both Turandot and its kissin' cousin Ariadne.

More observations and insights to come in the next several weeks!

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