February 15, 2014


Okay, you know what? I see now that "Ariadne-iana" does not flow as smoothly as, say, "Mozartiana", which doesn't even need a hyphen to be intelligible. My bad. However, for an alternate title indicating random miscellany on the subject of Strauss's opera............. I got nothing. So Ariadne-iana it is.

As Virginia Opera's run of performances nears its end (we're on tour in Fairfax as I write this), I thought I'd share a few observations about this opera I've come to love. None of them are worthy of an entire blog essay of their own, but I still wanted to share them with you. So: what kind of stuff? Like these:

1)  Here's a postscript to last week's post in which I pointed out quotations and parodies of other composers Strauss incorporated into Ariadne, ostensibly with an eye toward his own place in musical history. The ones I mentioned were Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Donizetti. But a Faithful Reader has pointed out a really good one I missed: Felix Mendelssohn! The Faithful Reader in question also attended my pre-curtain talk at last evening's performance. When I banged out a couple of bars of the Dancing Master's monologue, he recognized it immediately. This is the tune in question:

This is a direct quote from the Intermezzo in Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream suite. You can listen to it here at this link. The tune being quoted appears near the end, around the 2:30 mark. Go ahead - click and listen. I'll wait. (twiddling thumbs.....) You're back! Pretty obvious, wasn't it? 

I figure that anyone sharp enought to have caught this - and, by the way, I am MORTIFIED BEYOND MEASURE that I didn't see it myself (fifty lashes with a wet baton for me...), is probably someone worthy of your continued attention. So here's a link to my sharp-eared new friend's blog; check it out: Nails On Blackboards.

Moving on...

Here are my favorite moments in the Prologue:
  • We all know what athletes, rock stars and famous actors say when they're stopped for speeding, right? Apparently this has always been a "thing" with would-be celebrities, as we hear it twice in the Prologue, from both the Composer and the Prima Donna, neither of whom believe they're being treated with due deference and respect by their host's household staff. And what is it they say? Naturally: "Do you know who I am???" This cracks me up, especially since we can infer the unspoken answer: "Sure. I just don't care."
  • Those moments of disrespect are pretty great satirical commentary on what classical artists often have to put up with in order to be able to do their thing. For example, when the Composer tells a servant he needs to rehearse the violins, he's told that's impossible as they're in the dining room. The composer, aghast that musicians would be eating so soon before the performance, is quickly set straight by the servant, who chortles at the very idea. Musicians.... being served a gourmet meal???  Crazy talk!!  This hits home with me. Your Humble Blogger once was Master of Ceremonies for a concert of opera arias being sung at a fancy country club featuring four young vocalists and a pianist. The six of us were instructed to arrive well ahead of time. It was pointed out to the country club liaison that we should be fed, since we wouldn't have time to go for dinner. When we arrived, while the club members dined on fancy food, we were ushered to a basement room with a card table and folding chairs. On the table was a plate with four ham sandwiches on white bread. For six people. Feeding musicians: what a concept, right?!
  • But the moment that really makes me chortle is courtesy of the Major-domo, who occupies a staff position corresponding to Carson, the burly manager of daily affairs at Downton Abbey. (I figure anybody who reads an opera blog probably never misses an episode of Downton, so we're cool, right? Good.) When he makes his stunning announcement that, due to a time crunch, the serious opera and the musical comedy will now be performed simultaneously, it is greeted with shock and dismay by the opera folks. "How are we supposed to do THAT?" they want to know. The Major-domo's dismissive reply is priceless: "That's your problem. Y'all are the professionals - YOU figure it out." (Slightly paraphrased, but that's the gist.) 
Now, a thought about Zerbinetta's aria. Strauss intended it to be the most spectacular coloratura aria ever written, topping all previous contenders such as the Mad Scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. Did he succeed? I'll grant you that Zerbinetta's aria has a lot going for it. It's witty, tuneful, highly entertaining, and the virtuosic vocal writing is truly mind-bending. So what's the verdict? Sorry, Richard - the Mad Scene is still holds the championship belt. Here's the problem: in Lucia, we have a deranged young woman who has just butchered the husband she was forced to marry. Her nightgown soaked in blood, she bursts into the reception where the guests are celebrating, holding a dagger while she rants and hallucinates before dropping dead of the stress. HOLY GEEZ! And what happens in Zerbinetta's aria? 

Uh... that would be "nothing". No plot twist, no advancement of the story line, no drama, no blood, no nothing. Just a pretty girl charming us with her beguiling voice and sassy personality. A wonderful and challenging composition, but.............

And finally, I have to share something I saw on the Facebook page of one of my friends. Now, bear in mind: Ariadne's back story involves her helping Theseus (who turns out to be a real jerk) slay the Minotaur, that half-man, half-bull monster. The monster was created when the gods, to punish King Minos of Crete for his disobedience, had his wife Queen Pasiphae impregnated by the king's prize bull. (I know, I know - a revolting visual image there. Try not to dwell on it.) Anyway, if the Queen and the bull went out on a date before having sex, it might have looked something like this:

What do you think? Am I over-romanticizing this whole thing? Yeah, maybe......

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