Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos was first performed in 1912, in a production directed by Max Reinhardt. Unlike the version usually seen today, this first Ariadne was a long-winded play-opera-ballet hybrid, incorporating a full production of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme with dances to incidental music by Strauss followed by the short opera. Less than a decade later these three men would found the Salzburg Festival, so it seems only appropriate that the festival is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Ariadne. While this convoluted production doesn’t make a good case for the piece, strong performances by Emily Magee and Elena Mosuc in the opera’s main roles and a fantastic deus ex machina by Jonas Kaufmann as Bacchus make it worthwhile.

Michael Rotschopf (Hofmannsthal), Regina Fritsch (Ottonie/Dorine), Ensemble © Ruth Waltz
Michael Rotschopf (Hofmannsthal), Regina Fritsch (Ottonie/Dorine), Ensemble
© Ruth Waltz

The 1912 Ariadne was widely considered a failed experiment, too long and difficult to produce. In 1916 Strauss and Hofmannsthal revised the work to its now-standard form, incorporating a sung Prologue briefly explaining how Zerbinetta’s commedia dell’arte troupe find themselves on an island with the lamenting Ariadne. The present production was promoted as a rare airing of the 1912 version, but director Sven-Eric Bechtolf has sliced and diced Hofmannsthal’s translation of Molière into little more than a series of sketches. He has also added much of the text of the 1916 Prologue as spoken dialogue and interpolated a frame narrative involving Hofmannsthal himself and a certain Countess Ottonie, a melancholy widow who the writer will persuade to, like Ariadne, love again. (Then follows the opera.)

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. All too complicated. In an airy room with a lush forest visible through the windows, Hofmannsthal tells Ottonie the Molière story (of the nouveau riche Monsieur Jourdain, who longs to be a titled aristocrat) as a roundabout seduction. The 18th century is evoked in pure white costumes, and Hofmannsthal and Ottonie take part in and eventually fall into this world. The scenes that remain from Molière have spark and wit. This is largely thanks to the buoyant Cornelius Obonya as Jourdain, blissfully unaware of his own absurdity and sliding from an aspirational drawl to his native lower-class Viennese bellow at the slightest provocation. The Hofmannsthal-Ottonie scenes are elegantly acted by Michael Rotschopf and Regina Fritsch, but drag on and on, thanks to a lack of plot and painfully clichéd dialogue. The dances, choreographed by Heinz Spoerli, are brief but delightful, their balletic grace complementing Strauss’ witty take on 18th-century music.

Unfortunately Daniel Harding’s conducting of the Wiener Philharmoniker—the score is for 37 players but that is enough to fill the small Haus für Mozart—rendered the light neo-classicism of the incidental music more flabby than gracious, textures unclear and coordination sometimes unsure. The Opera showed inflexibility of tempos and little sense of pace. The one truly loud section, Bacchus’ entrance music, was the orchestral highlight of the evening.

Compared to the play, the staging of the opera is conventional. Jourdain, the composer, Hofmannsthal, and Ottonie sit in rows of seats at the back of the stage. The remaining space is mysteriously littered with the wreckage of several grand pianos, surrounded by the island’s sand. Ariadne, acted with intentionally excessive poignancy and sung unevenly by Emily Magee, appears as a double to Ottonie, and the two mirror each other and interact throughout the opening scenes. Commedia dell’arte players emerge from nowhere in colorful costumes and cavort in the usual manner. Elena Mosuc made for a rather serious Zerbinetta with an unusually full voice. While her large vibrato was not always suited for the most rapid runs, she had a confidence and ease in the music that was a pleasure to hear, and handled the extreme difficulties of her aria’s 1912 version (even more cadenzas!) with aplomb. Magee’s warm, dark tone is ideally suited to this role, but she sometimes struggled with phrasing and intonation. The nymphs, wearing extravagant feathered headdresses, were first-class.

The opera is not overly serious, with Jourdain’s many spoken interjections (dropped in the 1916 version, where Jourdain never appears onstage) breaking the ice. Ariadne does not hear Zerbinetta merely “in a dream” as specified by the libretto, but is fully aware of her, giving their scenes an unusually animated quality. Zerbientta’s sidekicks zip around on scooters and hide under the pianos. While displaying no particular interpretive angle on the work, it’s more or less effective.

The final scene is the production’s most intense and weirdest. Taking the libretto’s description of “panther-like” literally, Bacchus appears in a shiny leopard-print suit (well, close enough) and proceeds to creep up to Ariadne like a shy housecat. The scene is bizarre but oddly effective, its tentativeness playing off the characters’ discomfort and sense of discovery, and Jonas Kaufmann sang Bacchus with heroic, passionate authority and immediacy, giving the entire production a jolt. (In a running gag, his trumpeting “Circe, Circe” refrain literally made the audience fall from their chairs.) What does it mean for Bacchus to become a god? It’s not clear, but at least it looks like something special, and the extreme gaudiness of the staging—Bacchus at one point raises his hands and makes several gigantic chandeliers descend—is a decent visual analogue for the score’s blaring apotheosis. It also suggests that M. Jourdain may not have the best of taste, but it’s hard to tell if this was intentional. Irony is not this production’s strong suit.

If only the rest of the evening had shown such concentration. In creating a (historically very sketchily documented) biographical inspiration for Ariadne, Bechtolf embraces a Romantic vision of artistic inspiration that the intellectual, philosophical construction of the opera itself repudiates. In other words, if Hofmannsthal was so inspired by Ottonie, why did he stick Zerbinetta in there to alienate us from her plight? How could M. Jourdain’s extravagances possibly serve as a seduction strategy? Rather than tying the work together, the additions make it more diffuse. The rehabilitation of the 1912 Ariadne is yet to come.

****1