Two for the Price of One: Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'

wo-151502-250-sameRemember "double features," at the movies? Maybe from the days of drive-in theaters? Back then, from time to time, you could actually enjoy two feature films for the price of one ticket. A good deal, right?

            Well, seeing two movies on one ticket might well be good bang for the buck -- provided you get to watch them one at a time. But what if you had to watch them both at the same time -- say, at a drive-in with two, side-by-side screens? That way, you might not enjoy either film, much less both of them, especially if the two movies were wildly different.  

            For example, imagine you had The Godfather on one screen, and Ghostbusters on the other, playing simultaneously. Under those circumstances, it wouldn't be long before neither film made much sense. But a combination like that one is exactly what one of opera's greatest creative teams attempted when Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote Ariadne auf Naxos. What's more, they actually pulled it off.

            Strauss and Hofmannsthal began their long collaboration with Elektra, which premiered in 1909. Their first unqualified success came with Der Rosenkavalier two years later. After that, they made plans for another major opera, which turned out to be Die Frau Ohne Schatten, a drama featured on World of Opera not long ago.

            First, though, the two men decided to pay off a sort of artistic debt. While preparing for the first performance of Rosenkavalier, they received invaluable assistance from the theatrical producer Max Rheinhardt. So, to pay Rheinhardt back, they cooked up a novel evening of entertainment for his theater company. Strauss wrote incidental music for a play by Molière -- Le bourgeois gentilhomme -- to be followed by a short opera: Ariadne auf Naxos. The play concludes with a dinner, and the opera was to be the after-dinner entertainment, with a short scene connecting the two.

            The whole thing worked well enough when the show premiered in 1912. But there were a couple of problems: The plan required the resources of both a theater company and an opera house, and altogether it was nearly six hours long.

            Strauss and Hofmannsthal wisely decided that was impractical. So they created a second version that's more purely operatic. That score has an extended Prologue, in which both a serious opera and a musical comedy are being readied for a wealthy patron's dinner party. But, the patron has limited time -- and no sensitivity to the demands he places on his performers, or to the concerns of a thin-skinned opera composer. So he demands that the opera and comedy be presented simultaneously.

            Then, with dinner concluded, the Prologue is followed by a longer, one-act opera in which that unlikely juxtaposition is presented as a pair of "plays-within-a-play." That two-part version -- Prologue plus Opera -- is the one that remains in the repertory, and it's the one featured here.

            Host Lisa Simeone presents Ariadne auf Naxos from the Vienna State Opera, in a production led by conductor Christian Thieleman and featuring a top-notch ensemble cast. The stars include mezzo-soprano Sophie Koch, sopranos Daniela Fally and Soile Isokoski, and tenor Johan Botha.