Ariadne auf Naxos, a gem of an opera, may not be the most accessible of the six in which Richard Strauss collaborated with librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Its structure is awkward, consisting of a prologue and an opera. The prologue introduces two groups of singers and performers, opera and burlesque. It has spoken dialogues. The “opera” unfolds as an evening entertainment at the home of a wealthy Viennese man, with the patron ordering a simultaneous performance of the tragedy of Ariadne and a comedy by Zerbinetta and her troupe. Ariadne’s somber music is interspersed by Zerbinetta’s lighter coloratura. The two musical elements are never reconciled, remaining awkwardly apart.

Director David Hermann creates a literal representation of the duality of the work by splitting the stage: Zerbinetta’s cheerful rococo world stage right and Ariadne’s dark world with crumbling walls and stairs stage left. The two worlds merge to the extent that the performers begin to interact with one another as the opera progresses. The final tableau sees all performers, including the Composer, Music Teacher, Dance Master and others from the prologue, as standing frozen like statues. Bacchus, in plain clothes, fled the stage after the rich patron and his guests rushed to him for selfies. 

The staging of the prologue consisted of a large white room, with three doors on the wall in mid stage. Players came and went through the doors, which opened to a closet, a shower for the Tenor, a stage being set up. Without prior knowledge of who’s who and the plot, this created some confusion but not without humor: the Wigmaker is dressed as a punk kid; the Dance Master in pale blue suit with white shoes with heels. The frantic action and dialogue constrained the musical performance until we got to composer’s final aria, when music overcame the awkward staging. It was good to see Wagnerian veteran Albert Dohmen making his role debut as the music teacher, with sonorous voice. Alexander Pereira was an interesting choice as Major Domo. Claudia Mahnke, stepping in for an indisposed colleague, was a delightful Composer with richness and security in voice and eagerness and spontaneity in action.  

I have attended numerous performances of Ariadne over the last 20 odd years at many major opera houses. The musical performance of the second half of this evening was nothing short of miraculous. Christian Thielemann elicited such complex, rich but transparent and exquisite performance from Dresden Staatskapelle that there was hardly anyone breathing in the house for an hour and a half. Ariadne can best be described as a chamber opera, with reduced strings and brass sections but a double wind section and unusual instruments like harmonium and celesta. Thielemann’s conducting was never fussy or mannered; he led a smooth and clear path to the core beauty of the music, with phrases following one after another with natural continuity and simmering incandescence. While there was applause after Zerbinetta’s aria “Großmächtige Prinzessin”, it was brief as most of the audience respected the conductor’s wish not to break the flow of the music, and not because Daniela Fally’s Zerbinetta performance was lacking.

Vocally, Ariadne and Zerbinetta must carry the opera. Ms Fally had an engaging and energetic stage presence. Hers was not a complex character but a straightforward party girl. She sang with beauty and poise; her coloratura and high notes were accurate and thrilling. Krassimira Stoyanova, making her role debut, was astounding as Ariadne. Her voice, rich and full of color, expressed every nuance and emotion in Ariadne’s long soliloquy and arias, and her high notes often evolved into a beautiful pianissimo. It was a moving portrayal of quiet sorrow, not of hysteria or desperation. Ms Stoyanova managed to sing Ariadne’s fiendishly difficult music with calm confidence and exquisite beauty, a rare treat. The two women also seemed to share a kindred spirit in this production, as they responded to one another’s singing with heartfelt gestures.

Thielemann provided minute direction and strong support to his singers throughout. He gestured to them, toned down the orchestra when necessary, and never unleashed the orchestra with full power to overwhelm them. Stephan Gould, singing the punishing role of Bacchus, was in good form, scaling the heights of the music with a nice transition to a delicate and well supported head voice as his rich middle voice continued to resonate with brilliance. He benefited from Thielemann’s chamber-like approach in the final duet, as his voice rang out to make a lasting impression of the beautiful ending of the opera. But as with many evenings of opera conducted by Thielemann, the final triumph belonged to him and his orchestra. I am grateful that I was able to experience a breathtaking and unforgettable performance of Strauss’ masterpiece.  What a shame that the theater was not sold out for this once in a lifetime opportunity.