Historical and Literary Background

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Material of Virginia Opera. Printed with permission.

Historical and Literary Background

Ariadne in Mythology

Sleeping Ariadne on Naxos (Greek mythology), wood engraving, published 1878

Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos and Queen Pasiphae of Crete. Minos ordered a maze called the Cretan Labyrinth erected, at the center of which dwelt Minotaur, a creature half-man and half-bull. The monster was appeased with periodic sacrifices of young men and women, which he devoured. When theses, hero-king of Athens, vowed to slay the Minotaur, Ariadne fell in love with him at once and helped him achieve the feat by providing him with a sword and a ball of string. He used the latter to mark his way through the maze. Theseus and Ariadne became lovers but soon he tired of her and left her on the island of Naxos. After a period of isolation during which she wept inconsolably, Ariadne was discovered by Bacchus, which is the roman name for Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry. In some versions of the story, Bacchus discovers Ariadne on the island, falls in love with her and takes her has his wife. In others, Bacchus comes to Naxos already knowing she would be there. The constellation Corona is said to be her wedding diadem. Bacchus and Ariadne had several offspring and were faithful until her death. In some tellings, Ariadne was killed by Perseus; in others, she hanged herself.

Ariadne has been the subject of numerous treatments of composers throughout history. Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), regarded as the first great operatic composer, composed his opera, L’Arianna in 1608. The music has been lost save for one famous aria, “Il lament d’Arianna.” Here is a representative list of other operas about Ariadne. Some deal with Ariadne on Crete and Theseus’s slaying of Minotaur; others tell of her abandonment on Naxos.

  • Arianna e Teseo (1714) by N. Porpora (The libretto for this work, by Pariati, was also set by such composers as Leo, Sarti and Galuppi).
  • Arianna in Creta (1734) by G. F. Handel
  • Ariane (1906) by J. Massenet
  • L’abandon d’Ariane (1927) by D. Milhaud
  • Ariane (1958) by B. Martin

Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809) is the composer of a cantata entitled Arianna a Naxos. There is a ballet by French composer Albert Roussel called Bacchus et Ariadne from 1931.

Literary treatments of the story without music include a story by Anton and poems by Heinrich Wilhelm von Gerstenberg and Friedrich Nietzsche.

The Creation of the Opera

It took some five years for Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos to be completed as we know it today, from earliest inception to ultimate revision. Strauss (1864-1949) was an established and successful operatic composer at the time work began on Ariadne, with no fewer than five works to his credit. The two most recent, Elektra (1909) and Der Rosenkavalier (1911) were created with the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874). The two men would collaborate on a total of six operas, with Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919), Di ägyptsche Helena (1928), and Arabella (1933) following Ariadne.

Strauss and Hoffmannsthal originally meant for Ariadne to exist as a short one-act “mini-opera”, perhaps thirty minutes in length, to be incorporated within a performance of Moliere’s play Le bourgeious gentilhomme as translated into German by Hofmannsthal. The opera would be characterized by the ironic intrusion of characters from the Italian commedia dell’arte into the drama. Strauss would also compose some original incidental music for the Moliere play itself.

As time went along during the creative process, both composer and librettist found their initial ideas expanding: Hoffmannsthal became interested in the metaphysical aspects of Ariadne’s grief, while Strauss insisted on giving the character of Zerbinetta a lengthy scene of coloratura display. The resulting performance of Le bourgeois genthilhomme consisted of Hoffmannsthal’s translation in Acts 1 and 2, with the now inflated opera serving as the closing third act.

This concoction was neither a critical or popular success upon its debut in 1916. The opera struck people as an anchor weighing down on the French comedy, and play seemed too unrelated to Strauss’s soaring music. Feeling strongly on the merits of Ariadne, the two artists committed to solving the problem of how best to present the material, settling on an entirely new plan. They discarded the Moliere play, substituting new material by the librettist: a prologue depicting the back-stage circumstances just prior to an opera called Ariadne auf Naxos. There would be a vain soprano and tenor displaying typical diva-style fits of temperament; subsequently those same artists would portray the title characters in the opera.

Hofmannsthal is said to have been perturbed about the lyrical and complex nature of Strauss’s musical treatment of the Prologue; he had expected a more cursory, recitative-style setting. He had also not envisioned the character of the Composer as a so-called “trouser role” for a female singer, similar to the role of Octavian in their most recent work, Der Rosenkavalier. For his part, Strauss pointed out that that the work already called for three tenors, and his casting held sway. The premiere of this revised version, for all purposes a new work (the Ariadne-Bacchus section was also tweaked), was received with acclaim and has become established as a popular work in the standard repertoire. The three roles of Zerbinetta, the Composer and Ariadne are regarded as among the greatest and most challenging written for women’s voices.

Strauss is widely regarded as one of the greatest masters of orchestration; in Ariadne auf Naxos it is remarkable the level of sonority that is created by an ensemble of less size than usual: a mere thirty-nine players. Many of the characteristic elements of Strauss’s style are fully in evidence in this opera, including:

  • Expert writing for the human voice, with vocal lines successfully straddling the delicate balance between challenging and abusive technical requirements;
  • A harmonic style alternating extreme chromaticism with unabashed functional diatonic chord progressions;
  • A particular fondness for creating musical tension by prolonging dominant seventh sonorities over several bars, resulting in intense climaxes when the resolution finally arrives on the tonic.