Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Hairman at the Opera gets to know...Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos (Part 2)

Photo by Clive Barda taken from WNO

Apologies for the delay in this closing instalment, unfortunately my technical #fail is still living up to its hash mark, but I’ve enlisted some help from You Tube, so settle in for a brief delvidge into the remainder of the work.

Gone are the backstage hysterics of the Prologue with the stage now set for the Opera* within an opera – Ariadne auf Naxos. To say that little goes on in the Opera is misleading, but a straight explanation of events reads like a Saturday afternoon b&w melodrama / musical from the 1940’s...

Ariadne (Prima Donna) has been left high and dry by her lover (Theseus) on the island of Naxos. Bewailing her fate she wishes to die, despite the protestations of a trio of nymphs. Trespassing into this realm of misery (and the Composer's Ariadne auf Naxos) comes Zerbinetta and her commedia dell’arte troupe to attempt to enliven Ariadne's spirits. After her boys make little progress with Ariadne, Zerbinetta makes an attempt to sing some sense into the Queen of Mope, but she too hits the rocks and Ariadne skulks offstage to find solace with a bottle of gin and a copy of Tess of the d'Urbervilles. Zerbinetta delivers her less gloomy outlook on matters of the heart, before her boys return to do a slapstick routine. Once the slap has been sticked they make way for Mr Loverman, Bacchus (Tenor). Thinking that The Seventh Seal's most pale faced cast member has turned up Ariadne reappears. After a heart to heart, things begin look up for Ariadne as she forgets all about death and settles for being transformed into a constellation. I wonder what would have happened if a shipwrecked unicyclist from Genoa had turned up? Anyway, end of opera.

Perhaps that was a touch heavy-handed explanation, and the bit about the constellation may be slightly wrong, except that there’s more than just plot to this opera. Though I’ve come to appreciate the work as being a cut above most others I’ve come across it didn’t start out that way. Reading Hugo von Hofmannsthal's libretto, the decision to create a behind the scenes approach in the Prologue jarred with me when the second part of the work, the Opera, took centre stage. How could I treat it seriously when it was such an artificial piece of work? These grand, yet distant, figures from Greek mythology had little in common with the earthbound creatures who had bickered throughout the Prologue. You could draw some lines of continuity between the characters played by the Prima-Donna and Zerbinetta's gang; Ariadne’s fragility with men foreshadowed by the Prima-Donna’s constant enquiries about the host’s whereabouts, and though Zerbinetta is a far more lyrical version of her earlier self, she still carries the same Woman of the World message. And it's Zerbinetta, and her gang, whose presence in the Opera is the trickiest. At times they undercut the seriousness of the plot, deflating the woe is me vibes given off by Ariadne and her Damsels in Depression.

But fret not my fretted readers – things are not as bewildering as they appear. Comedy's cheeky jowl doth sit by tragedy's furrowed brow! Thanks to the music. Reading the libretto, is one thing. Listening to it is another kettle of fish and fingers. In its own way, the work, is similar to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, in that it shakes up an audience's perception of what to expect. And in a way Strauss trusts that we'll buy into his musical ideas for the work. Of course the music has to be able to withstand the toing and the froing of the onstage action and it succeeds in doing this. On times the arias felt slightly generic in nature – Zerbinetta's coloratura mega marathon and the Ariadne / Bacchus Wagner-like getting to know you bit – but they are high class generic arias (and in a way most work carries echoes of other composers). More importantly the comedy sits nicely with the tragedy, deflating the self-indulgent woes and in turn allowing the honest to goodness beauty of the score to bloom at the end of the work. Because, believe me dear readers, you may want to take a tissue or two in with you for the finale. Or pretend that you've just poked yourself in the eye with a comb.

Bringing this edition of the barely thought out Hairman at the Opera gets to know... I've come to see Ariadne auf Naxos as being a beguiling work. The philosophers among you may want to point out that Strauss illustrates the school of thought that there's a narrow divide between comedy and tragedy, and there is more than a kernel of truth to that observation. Others may like to highlight the reality present in the work, in that it shows you don't need to be the loveliest of human beings to be able to create works of art. Those of you, who are so inclined, may wish to draw attention to the work's solidarity with composers / writers subjugated by commercial vultures. Then there'll be those sick and fed up of maudlin pretentiousness who will lap up the pricking of a bubble or two. Without forgetting, of course, those who find that it's less the plot, rather than what the opera has to say about love, and how it says it, that's important. As with any work of substance it defies classification. It's qualities change the more a listener encounters it. At the moment I'm a mix of all of the above and, whether or not I stumble upon further changes of heart, these thoughts will do me fine for the time being.

With a nod towards your patience it's excerpt time.

Ariadne (Jessye Norman) taking a trip down memory lane, before taking a trip down misery lane. Still, it's good stuff.

Zerbinetta (Natalie Dessay) dispensing wisdom to a disinterested Ariadne (Katarina Dalayman) - Part One.

Zerbinetta (Natalie Dessay) dispensing wisdom to a disinterested Ariadne (Katarina Dalayman) - Part Two.

Get your tissues and combs ready! It's the finale, as sung by Gundula Janowitz (Ariadne), James King (Bacchus) and co.

*When I refer to Opera it's the second part of Ariadne auf Naxos, as opposed to the opera as a whole.

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