Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Ariadne Auf Naxos

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera: Ariadne Auf Naxos

Article excerpt

Ariadne auf Naxos

Royal Opera House

'Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live. What is required for that is to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance... Those Greeks were superficial -- out of profundity [Nietzsche's own italics].' Thus said Nietzsche in the preface to The Gay Science . I expect Richard Strauss knew the passage. At any rate, many of his works give the impression of being composed by someone who wasn't sure how profound he could be, or wanted to be, or indeed what profundity was.

This is most evident in Ariadne auf Naxos , which deals explicitly with these issues. To add to his perplexities at this time, Strauss had Hugo von Hofmannsthal lecturing him in letters. The key one is printed in the Royal Opera's programme for the revival of Ariadne . In it Von Hoffmansthal cultivated that vein of genteel mystical mythology that alternately cowed Strauss into agreement and left him feeling irritable and more determined than ever to be 'the Offenbach of the 20th century'. Ariadne in its final form, the one we almost always see, brilliantly presents a set of related problems, all in this area. In the Prologue the Composer (clearly the actual librettist) is all solemn ardour and indignation, while the Dancing Master, head of the comedy troupe, is unfazed by the demand that a grand tragedy and a harlequinade should be performed simultaneously.

The Prologue is one of the best things Strauss ever did, showing more than anything else he wrote how wonderful an operetta composer he could have been. In Christof Loy's production, now revived for the fourth time (I missed the last revival), there seemed to me to be innumerable small changes, but nothing that made a significant difference. We still have the whole set moving up a floor after a few minutes, expensive and impressive, but it's hard to see what point is being made. The depiction of life behind the curtain might be compared to Kiss Me, Kate , which is equally witty and with some more memorable tunes. But Ariadne 's Prologue has, as always in this production, the seedy Music Master of Thomas Allen, a classic portrayal, and in this revival the adorable Composer of Ruxandra Donose, who takes the role as seriously as possible but no further, so contrives to be funny, touching, ecstatic. Lothar Koenigs, making his Royal Opera debut, is indulgent in matters of tempi, so that the sudden winning flaring-up of passion between the Composer and Zerbinetta almost becomes like something out of Brief Encounter . …

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