Lee Sandlin     Squibs    Essays    Books    Home 

Sweet Nothing

Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos at the Lyric Opera

Opera review, November 20, 1998

The collaboration between Richard Strauss and poet and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal resulted in some of the finest works in the operatic repertoire. It also resulted in Ariadne auf Naxos, an odd trifle that's being given a new production by the Lyric. In a way, the bar is higher for a production of a minor work like Ariadne than it would be for any of their great operas. With Der Rosenkavalier or Elektra you know going in that it's a masterpiece, and you're satisfied if they don't screw it up. But with Ariadne you want something new--a revelatory insight, a convincing demonstration that what you thought was a loser is really a neglected classic.

The Lyric production doesn't do that. Instead it offers a lot of diversionary flash: weird special effects, extratextual sight gags, and Monty Python-esque self-referential deconstructions. There's so much misdirection and trickery on view I wasn't sure whether I was watching an opera or a magic act. But what can I tell you? I like magic acts. I still think Ariadne is a failure, but I have to admit that by the end of the evening I'd worked my way around to sort of admiring it--it couldn't be as bad as I'd always thought if it could provoke such an imaginative production.

Ariadne is an opera about the early history of opera. The setting is Vienna in the 18th century; a nobleman has commissioned a young hotshot to write a new opera for a private performance. The composer (unnamed--he's referred to just as "the Composer") has chosen an impeccably upscale classical theme: the lonely exile of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos (the guy with the Minotaur), who was abandoned by her lover Theseus on the remote uninhabited island of Naxos. As it happens, Ariadne actually was a favorite subject of early operas: versions and fragments of assorted Ariadnes survive from many Renaissance and Baroque composers--the early-music group the Consort of Musicke once put out a boxed CD set, "Lamento d'Arianna," containing a half dozen of them, including a magnificent aria from a lost work by the great Claudio Monteverdi.

But our Composer's "Ariadne" doesn't appear to be in that league. When the curtain rises on the backstage scene just before the premiere, everybody's predicting a disaster: the opera in rehearsal has proved to be a pretentious bore. So the nobleman (he's never seen onstage--his wishes and orders are relayed from the upstairs empyrean by a prissy majordomo) has decided to lighten the evening's program by adding a second attraction, a local comedy troupe who do a popular routine called "Zerbinetta and Her Four Would-Be Lovers." This pleases nobody. The Composer is outraged that his work would share the bill with such low company, and the comedians think they're going to bomb if they have to follow this stultifying downer of a main act. So the nobleman decrees a compromise: the comedians' act will be added to the opera as a subplot. The comedians are content, the Composer is driven into a fury, and the nobleman is satisfied that this whole program can be over in time for the fireworks show he's putting on afterward.

That's the setup, as laid out in the long "prologue." After the intermission, we get a complete performance of the opera-within-the-opera. Up to that point, Ariadne works pretty well. The backstage story is a little underwritten in spots--the relationships of the characters are barely sketched in--but the scene is still vivid. The hectic flurries of stagehands and costumers, the Composer lamenting, the singers throwing tantrums, and the comedians redoing their act with unflappable show-must-go-on professionalism--all of this is realized with wit and charm. But given the premise, you'd expect the reworked "Ariadne" to be a slapstick calamity, a grand send-up of those excessively solemn mythological operas the baroque era churned out in abundance. Instead it plays out with sedate decorum. Ariadne and her assorted dryads sing an interminable lament; the comedians wander in, do a very long, only tepidly funny number, then leave; and at last Bacchus arrives to bear Ariadne off to heaven--first taking time, of course, for a 20-minute duet. Waiting for the last trace of fun in the premise to drain off can make for a weary evening. One can only hope the fireworks were nice.

The basic issue is one of tone: it's never clear whether the Composer's original, untampered-with "Ariadne" is supposed to be taken seriously. If so, then it really is the pretentious drag the characters think it is: it's too long and too inert, and the intrusion of Zerbinetta and her lads torpedoes the drama--except that there isn't any drama. If it's supposed to be a parody, then the problem is simpler: there aren't any laughs.

But that only begins the list of difficulties. It seems at times as though there's supposed to be some parallel between the backstage scene and the opera; I don't think it's an accident, for instance, that Zerbinetta sings a sweet ode to innocent love in the prologue and a cynical tribute to lust once she gets onstage. But the significance of this is left undeveloped; Zerbinetta exits after her second number and is barely heard from again. Both prologue and opera climax in a passionate love duet: in the prologue it's between the Composer and Zerbinetta, and it ends with the Composer running offstage in disillusionment and horror; in the opera it's between Ariadne and Bacchus, and together they ascend to heaven. Are we supposed to compare and contrast? Beats me. There are no answers at the back of the libretto.

It probably seems as if I'm pressing too hard for deep structure from a work so obviously intended to be playful and insignificant. But that's just the point: the one truth demonstrated by the airiest and loveliest of comedies, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to The Code of the Woosters, is that an insubstantial surface requires an iron underpinning. With both Shakespeare and P.G. Wodehouse the soap bubble shimmer conceals a rigorous inner design, but beneath the surface of Ariadne is only sketchiness and patchwork. No wonder its playful setup sags so quickly into tedium.

This is particularly disappointing coming from a writer like Hugo von Hofmannsthal. He was one of the few people in the history of opera to take the libretto seriously as a literary form. One reason opera still has a reputation for brainless triviality is that so often composers have been willing to set stupid and incompetent librettos; it's better now, but in the last century only Wagner (who wrote his own) and Verdi (only at the end of his career) really cared if the words were as good as the music. Hofmannsthal insisted on writing librettos with the same high gloss as his poetry--with the result that his best work is strong enough to stand on its own as literature, as well as being a superb vehicle for Strauss's music.

And Strauss did need a strong collaborator. He's the supreme example of that puzzling phenomenon--the great artist who has no taste. Working on his own, he usually swerved off into appalling kitsch. Many critics call his Alpinsinfonie the most vulgar orchestral work ever written by a major composer, and those who disagree are likely to instead lean toward his Symphonia Domestica. It's genuinely impressive that he was able to recognize the quality of Hofmannsthal's work, and even more impressive that he could respond in kind: his scores for Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier draw on reserves of creative discipline and intelligence you would never have believed he had in him.

But when Hofmannsthal's artistic control is shaky, Strauss is suddenly all over the map. Ariadne's score is always listenable--even at his worst, Strauss is hardly ever dull-- but the overall effect is meandering and peculiar. The basic tone palette for the prologue is a sort of faux Baroque chromaticism; it sounds sort of like Handel or Bach but has so many unresolved chords and so much fluid modulation that any 18th-century listener would think it was the work of a lunatic. The opera-within-the-opera starts out with more restraint; for a little while you can almost buy it as an imitation of mid-Baroque. But then Zerbinetta and her buddies burst in, and suddenly we lurch into ersatz Mozart, all trills and Regency flourishes. After they clear off and Ariadne and Bacchus begin their duet, the score drifts into a lush late-Romantic backwater best described as Wagner Lite. I suppose it's possible to argue that Strauss is trying to be funny. But this is what happens to his style whenever there isn't a strong countervailing force to keep him in line: it hops around for a while from period to period, and sooner or later is drawn inexorably toward Wagner like an asteroid in the gravitational field of a black hole.

All this internal confusion points to a still deeper problem: Ariadne is a kind of garbled parable about its creators' failure to get along. They collaborated from 1905 until Hofmannsthal's death in 1929, but they always despised each other personally (they worked mostly by mail because they couldn't bear to be in the same room together) and were always pulling in different directions creatively. Hofmannsthal really was a rarefied aesthete, like Ariadne's Composer; Strauss's taste ran toward the commedia dell'arte of Zerbinetta, and he was always ready to toss aside a subtle artistic effect for a bit of crowd-pleasing schmaltz.

Ariadne doesn't describe these conflicts so much as enact them. Its current form represents an uneasy compromise; it was preceded by several years of arguing over how best to present the opera-within-the-opera (Hofmannsthal wanted it to be part of a much more serious and ambitious work--the first performance of his version ran six hours). So it's not surprising that the inner structure is a tangle of unresolved contradictions, that it circles warily around several touchy subjects and ends without confronting any of them--which was essentially what was going on in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's relationship. Their ability to work together would continue to dissipate. The operas that follow Ariadne, Die Frau ohne Schatten and Die aegyptische Helena, struggle and fail to form coherent wholes, unraveling into brilliant but irresolvable fragments.

Given all that, it's hardly fair to expect a particular production of Ariadne to fit the pieces back together. The Lyric's staging doesn't even bother to try. It's basically a series of diversions: it plays up the successful moments for all they're worth, but its main business is to distract you as much as possible during the dull and confused bits.

That's not a bad strategy, and it's certainly helped by an excellent cast. Deborah Voigt is predictably radiant as Ariadne; Laura Aikin, who's new to me, is a lot of fun as the alternately sweet and lewd Zerbinetta (a bit lewder than usual, particularly in her second-act aria); and Susan Graham, who was Cherubino in the Lyric's Figaro last year (she seems to be making a specialty of trouser roles), has just the right combination of youthful self-righteousness and shocked naivete as the unfortunate Composer. As is usual with Strauss, the men's roles aren't as strong as the women's, but Victor Braun gets some mileage out of the venerable, compromising Music Master, and Jon Villars does a grand turn as the studly Bacchus.

The production leaves the prologue, the most entertaining part of this opera, pretty much alone. The scurrying around of the characters and extras is choreographed with witty precision, like one of those comic ballets of everyday life in a Jacques Tati movie. Maybe it's a bit too exact; a few near-misses or apparently unplanned calamities might have been funnier. But this scrupulous solidity does set up the iridescent fantasy that follows.

The opera-within-the-opera is set inside a tiny 18th-century stage depicting an island cavern, with painted flats arranged in forced perspective around a backdrop of the ocean. On either side we see the wings, where the singers are waiting for their cues and the stagehands are drifting in and out. During the interminable arias there's a constant flurry of pantomime activity in the wings, of squabbles and reconciliations; at one point a couple of stagehands grow alarmed when they think Zerbinetta is going to let her skirts trail into the footlights and catch fire, and they stand poised to jump onstage with a bucket of water. None of this is in the libretto, but all of it works to buoy up the central conceit, weaving the comic subplots into the action, which Strauss and Hofmannsthal failed to do.

But the real test is the climax, when the comedians have cleared off and Ariadne and Bacchus are left alone onstage to sing their titanic duet. This is where almost every production I've ever seen collapses, but the Lyric team is just hitting its stride. Deborah Voigt and Jon Villars crank up the ecstatic passion, as though the pseudo-Wagner were the real thing, while the stage reveals itself to be a Chinese puzzle box of pictorial effects. As Bacchus enters, the flats shift slightly and our perspective undergoes a sudden, lovely transformation. We're looking at the stage from behind, and the backdrop of the sea has become a view of the mysterious, ruby-lit darkness of the nobleman's hall. The set turns inside out again, and we're back looking at the cavern, now suffused with a rosy sunset glow. Bacchus's ship arrives for the trip to heaven, and the sides fall away to reveal a vista of twilit ocean. The back wall is now an uncertain depth of velvety blackness, and as the ship sails and the music reaches its soaring coda, from the rafters comes a slow cascade of glittering chandeliers.

If this were a better opera I might be inclined to grouse about this shameless parade of meaningless effects. But since it's Ariadne, who cares? The director and designer, John Cox and Robert Perdiziola, have taken a misshapen failure and turned it into a jeweled toy--wittily conceived, luminously designed, and delicately executed. The last 20 minutes are as clever a bit of staging as I've seen at the Lyric in years. I can't help thinking that Strauss and Hofmannsthal might have admired the way the ending works both as a lyrical outburst and a practical resolution. However gratuitously lovely it might seem, it still contrives to bring the fireworks in on schedule.