Tuesday 11 June 2013

Around Ariadne

Die schlafende Ariadne auf Naxos (The Sleeping Ariadne in Naxos),
John Vanderlyn.
Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos persistently presents directors with a variety of challenges when it comes to staging. The work originated in a re-working of Moliere's play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, which Hofmannsthal translated into German with Strauss providing incidental music plus the musical entertainment at the end. This entertainment consisted of the combination of the opera with a commedia dell'arte troupe. This original version of Ariadne auf Naxos proved to be too long and to have too intransigent a combination of spoken play and opera. Strauss and von Hofmannsthal re-worked the play and Strauss provided it with a simpler entertainment much closer to Moliere's original. The operatic combination of Ariadne and Zerbinetta's commedia dell'arte troupe they felt was worth saving. So a prologue was added and the opera that we know today created.

The piece came about as a sort of thank-you present. The director Max Reinhardt (who worked at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin) had come to Strauss and Hofmannsthal's rescue when rehearsals for the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier had gone badly in Dresden. Reinhardt had worked anonymously so they cooked up the idea of writing him a short operatic work to be performed as an intermezzo during a Moliere play which Hofmannsthal would adapt. The whole to be performed at Reinhardt's Berlin theatre. After batting about ideas, Le Bourgeois genthilhomme was fixed on, with the opera not as an intermezzo but to replace the grand ballet which was in the original.

Hofmannsthal included the character of Zerbinetta, in fact lifted from Moliere's Les Fourberies de Scapin, as an afterthought, but Strauss rather fixed on her and quite early on she was allocated her coloratura showpiece. The whole opera grew, with the orchestra expanding from 22 to 37 and Strauss rejecting out of hand the idea that the players might be on stage.

The whole thing got out of hand, the pit at the Berliner Theater wasn't big enough to fit the players needed, other theatres didn't want the work owing to the odd combination of spoken theatre and opera. The premiere ended up being in Stuttgart in January 1912, but the actors on the first night were from Max Reinhardt's troupe though the local one was to take over afterwards, which hardly made for calm and unruffled back-stage atmospheres. Performances followed in Munich, Dresden, Vienna and London; in London the play was translated by Somerset Maugham, Beecham conducted. But all in all, the result was something of a failure, a hybrid which satisfied neither opera-goers nor play-goers and which required significant performers and made for a rather long evening. This first version remains rather rare and is very much festival fare.

For the play, Hofmannsthal had written a short linking scene to smooth things over into the opera. He expanded this into a fully sung prologue, Strauss wasn't thrilled at first but in 1916 he set to and set it.  He also made Zerbinetta's big coloratura easier and shorter. The ending too needed work as in the original there is spoken dialogue intermingling with the sung sections.

One challenge for directors is that Strauss's music for the closing pages of the opera, transcends the putative setting. When Bacchus appears we are no-longer in the house of the 'richest man in Vienna' hearing a private performance, but in the opera house listening to Richard Strauss's opera. The result is glorious, but problematical. How do you move from the one to the other in what, essentially, is a very static opera?

The other problem is that of linking the two parts, prologue and opera, how to link them and whether to at all

I was perhaps lucky to have first seen the work in the 1970's at Scottish Opera with a cast which included Helga Dernesch, Alberto Remedios and Janet Baker. It was set in the period of the opera's composition (rather de-rigeur with Strauss at the time). The production was traditional, but imaginative with the opera clearly taking place on the sets that we'd seen back-stage in the prologue. The director also took the rather traditional solution to the ending, simply having the sets disappear using a transformation scene which paralleled the music.

The novelty of Graham Vick's production for English National Opera (in the 1990's) was that it was set in the original period, 17th century France. And starred Donald Sinden as the major domo; he was quite, quite wonderful. Again the production was traditional in the sense that prologue and opera were linked by dramatic logic and setting. For the ending there was a disappearing of the setting and a bringing forward of the two principals (magical when it worked, embarrassing when the details became clunky in revivals). This opera became the house's 'big girls' opera for a long period; we saw Jane Eaglen and Christine Brewer in it.

This production highlights one problem with the ending, if directors get too clever with their transformation, then technical problems can occur during revivals. But you have to put up with that, that's theatre. What this solution gives you is that little bit of theatrical magic which combines with the music.

The most magical production was Covent Garden's new production (directed by Jean-Louis Martinoty) in the 1985 which, on its first outing, starred Jessye Norman as Ariadne, Ann Murray as the composer and James King as Bacchus. Here, for the ending the walls and ceiling gradually dissolved into a gorgeous Klimt-like back-drop. Given that the production included an on-stage 'band' and audience, this required them to gradually drift away too; not quite such a neat idea, but perhaps the only one in the circumstance.

More recent productions have seen the impact of regie-theater on the opera. Christoph Loy's at times spectacular 2002 production for Covent Garden (the one with the infamous black dress), dropped visual the link between the two parts leaving us to make the connections ourselves. Loy set the opera in a woman's bedroom and the biggest transformation of the evening happened not at the end of the opera, but at the beginning of the prologue.

Now Katherine Thoma's new production at Glyndebourne has set the piece in the old Glyndebourne opera house and the second half is....

Well, I'll not prejudge things, we're going to see it in a week or so's time and I'll report back.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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