Our first opera of the evening is a singular composition by Richard Strauss. Ariadne auf Naxos uses the ancient literary device of a story within a story, a concept used in Homer’s Odyssey, One Thousand and One Nights, numerous epics of ancient Indian literature, and multiple works by Shakespeare, among others. It was first presented as a thirty minute divertissement tacked on to the end of a play by Strauss’ regular librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal in 1912. But the overall production took over 6 hours, and audiences were unsatisfied. So Hofmansthall suggested that they replace the play with a prologue. This revision, which only retains one aria from the incidental music that Strauss wrote for the play, was premiered in 1916 in Vienna. This is the version that is normally performed today, although the original play-plus-opera has been performed as recently as 1997. In fact, I’ve discovered, as I was writing tonight’s blog, that there is currently a revival of the 1912 version being done at the Salzberg Festival (sung in German with English subtitles being provided, just in case you want to go). Everything I can find suggests that the production should run through early September. A great deal for folks who can afford to jet off to Austria for a show.
The music, however, completely transcends the story of its origins. Foward-looking and mildly abstract in its vocal lines, Ariadne auf Naxos contains some of Strauss’ most exquisite musical writing, both in terms of his vocal arrangements and in terms of his framing and orchestration. The opera has long attracted numerous great sopranos, as there are several notable soprano roles (Strauss had a thing for emphasizing strong female roles, and did so in all of his operas).
Tonight’s performance is from 1988, and features Jessye Norman, Edita Gruberová, Julia Varady, Paul Frey, Olaf Bär, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Eva Lind, and Rudolf Asmus. Kurt Masur directs the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (one of the oldest orchestral organizations in existence today).
Our second opera of the evening is a late work of Giuseppe Verdi’s. Verdi had essentially retired after the premiere of Aida in 1871, but his publisher, Giulio Ricordi, wanted to convince Verdi to write another opera. Verdi had always wanted to do an adaptation of a Shakespearian play, especially after his rendition of Macbeth was not well received. So Verdi was presented with a libretto for Othello by librettist Arrigo Boito, and Verdi’s opera Otello was eventually premiered on February 3rd, 1887, to great success.
Our final piece of music is a four scene “drama with music” by Arnold Schoenberg. Die glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) was written by Schoenberg between 1910 and 1913, and was premiered in Vienna on October 24, 1924. Schoenberg was influenced in his writing by events that had occurred over the previous few years, and the underlying theme of the work is that man continues to repeatedly make the same mistakes.
The work is scored for one singing role, a baritone, along with two mimed characters and a six person chorus. Tonight’s recording is from 1981, and features Siegmund Nimsgern, with Pierre Boulez directing the BBC Singers and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
- Miaow. Jonas Kaufmann in leopardskin (intermezzo.typepad.com)
- Pantherpants! Ariadne auf Naxos in Salzburg (intermezzo.typepad.com)
- Jonas Kaufmann Sports Leopard-Print Gold Suit as Bacchus – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)