On Strauss’s Ariadne Auf Naxos, Glyndebourne Festival Opera Programme, 2006

(published in Glyndebourne Festival Opera programme 2006)


Ariadne auf Naxos is opera’s meditation on itself at the Modernist moment when horizons were cracking open everywhere for all art, by two geniusses who had already made brilliant opera together. It explores what opera really is by focussing on two things: the relationship between opera’s tragedy and comedy, opera seria and opera buffa, and opera’s enormous concentration on femaleness.

Strauss modelled the Composer on the young Mozart fighting to liberate himself, as Strauss felt Mozart had, from traditions of opera seria and its obsession with myth. But he gets at this relationship between opera seria and opera buffa through opera’s other obsession: men’s interpretation of women and their feelings. Opera is mutilated men singing female roles, and women in trousers pretending to be men, Its plots characteristically revolve around female desire as imagined by men. Probing opera’s nature and its history, therefore, Ariadne auf Naxos reflects the way this manmade genre is everything to do with women as men perceive them and may be little to do with how they actually are, except how they sing.

One of Strauss’s great strengths was his power of combining two female voices, In the Prologue, two female voices represent opera seria and opera buffa. They belong to Zerbinetta, Ariadne’s opposite, epitome of the flirt, and the boy Composer, Ariadne’s male creator who speaks for Ariadne in a woman’s voice. Ariadne and Zerbinetta are the A and Z of womanhood as perceived and constructed by two men, the real composer, Strauss, and his librettist Hofmannsthal. In Part One these two female voices argue opposing interpretations of Ariadne and her union with Bacchus; in Part Two, the voices of Zerbinetta (again) and Ariadne herself enact the opposition of opera seria and opera buffa, the grandly tragic and the modern, sceptical-realist approach to whatevr opera might be, The whole opera is really about the divergence and eventual fusion of opposing interpretations of two things that somehow become elided into one: Ariadne’s motivation and the nature of opera.

The Composer says Ariadne is loyal to her first love and goes off with Bacchus because she thinks he is the God of Death. Zerbinetta says Ariadne simply needs a new man. When Zerbinetta first hears Ariadne’s story, she ridicules it. Yearning for death? That’s what they say. What she really wanted was another lover.

Of course, says the Dancing Master. And that’s what happens.

No! wails the Composer. Ariadne is the one woman who does not forget her love!

Kindskopf! says Zerbinetta. Babybrain! And she gazes into the Composer’s eyes.

The ensuing duet, which Zerbinetta initiates for practical reasons to get the show on the road, prefigures the later fusion between Bacchus and Ariadne, and demonstrates in miniature the fusion which the whole opera achieves between comedia del arte(represented by Zerbinetta) and opera seria whose ideals the Composer is trying to live up to. Placing Ariadne, represented by her maker, beside Zerbinetta, it both puts forward opposing views of women while combining opposite sorts of women. Aptly, therefore, its punning opening phrase plays on two meanings of a word. Ein Augenblick is wenig, ein blick ist viel. Blick is a “look”, Augenblick an “instant”. An instant is little, she says, a glance is a lot.

The “instant” is now, this last second before opera seria does amalgamate with burlesque. The “a lot” is the chemistry between these two characters and what they represent.

In this duet a solo violin accompanies Zerbinetta’s first line. Its melody is over in a flash (an Augenblick all on its own) but in Part Two Zerbinetta will pick that melody up, in the aria that reveals her personal credo. There, she will sing the phrase herself but faster, with a frisky sparkle, weaving into her hymn to infidelity this gentle fiddle decoration which marks the moment where she persuades the Composer to get on with it by suggesting her flirtiness is just a pose. The Composer is as innocent as his own version of Ariadne. He mingles “his” (in fact her) voice delightedly with Zerbinetta’s in a spiralling ecstasy which Bacchus and Ariadne will do for real at the end of the opera. Out of his experience of falling for Zerbinetta, twining his voice with hers, will come his expression of the mutual love between Ariadne and Bacchus.


These two voices, the Composer and Zerbinetta, are the key voices of the opera. It was arguments over their roles that held the opera up for seven years and nearly tore Strauss and Hofmannstal apart.

In 1911 Hofmannsthal showed Strauss a script which he had based on Molière’s play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. It featured shopkeepers watching an Ariadne opera. First problem: Strauss hated it – except the character of Zerbinetta, whom he imagined as a high coloratura soprano. Second problem: Hofmannsthal hated that. To him coluraturasopranos were wobbly and irrelevant. But they went with it. In 1912 they produced what we now call Ariadne I. The first half was a play. There was no singing and the Composer was a minor spoken role. The second half was an Ariadne opera.

Third problem: to the audience this seemed a horrid hybrid. As Strauss said, “The playgoing public does not want opera and opera audiences do not want a play.“ So Hofmannsthal turned the play into a sung Prologue, kept Zerbinetta, added singers who would sing Bacchus and Ariadne later on, and made the Composer a singing role dominating the action and linking the Prologue’s real, philistine world with the artificial but sublime world of the opera. Fourth problem: Strauss hated artists in plays, especially poets and composers. He jibbed at setting the Composer to music.

So they left it. They wrote Die Frau ohne Schatten, The Woman Without a Shadow. World war broke out. But in 1916 they went back to Ariadne and hit a fifth problem, again the Composer. Hofmannsthal hated the idea that he should be sung by a woman. But still their partnership held, and they produced Ariadne 2.

Why could they not leave Ariadne alone?

because, I think, Ariadne, the woman abandoned, the voice of abandonment, is the historic heart of opera. Her story begins and ends, exactly as this opera ends, with a male stranger coming over the sea, to an island. Theseus came to Crete, Ariadne fell in love with him, helped him kill the Minotaur and eloped with him for Athens. But he left her halfway, on Naxos.

Naxos is an image of abandonment itself: the island, isola, is a vital ingredient of the abandonnata tradition. In Greek myth, the women encountered by the wandering hero, like Odysseus, are voices on islands. Calypso, Circe: Odysseys meets them and manages to move on for he is male, he has a boat, is mobile, can go from island to island. Like Theseus and, in Strauss, like Bacchus. But the woman is immobile and isol-ated. She can do nothing but wait for whatever comes along. Death, drink, or a new love.

Ariadne sums up, in fact, the way that until the twentieth century, the woman was seen as able to do nothing but passively endure the outcome of her love. The moment of her story when she discovers Theseus has gone reverberates with a thousand male images (filtering into music through Greek, Roman and Renaissance art, through the Roman poets Ovid and Catullus) about women and their feelings for men.

Ariadne’s lament at that moment of abandonment is central to the whole history of opera. And. by coincidence, the word for the musical form which is opera’s DNA, the aria, that extraordinary musical window into a soul and its passions, is made of the first three syllables of Ariadne’s name: aria.

This lament became central to civilized awareness of opera in the land where opera began – in Italy, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Monteverdi wrote his opera Arianna in 1608. Today, its only surviving part is Ariadnes’s lament at Theseus’s departure. It begins with the words Lasciata mi morire, Let me die. and Monteverdi called it his opera’s “most fundamental part”. Ariadne singing her grief exemplifies the way opera works by fusing melody and harmony with narrative. She becomes a hieroglyph of abandonment. In the past, she abandoned her home and abandoned herself to her lover. Now, abandoned by him, she abandons herself again – in song, to grief. Her lament is a self-abandoned expression of abandonment.

Monteverdi’s Ariadne lament set the gold standard for four centuruies of operatic explorations of her musical character. It was extraordinarily successful. He wrote various settings of it, including one for a five-part choir. And by the 1640’s every musical household in Italy had a copy, in some version, of Ariadne’s song. Since Monteverdi, there have been nearly fifty Ariadne operas, from Handel to Milhaud, Martinu and Alexander Goehr.

There are as many different explanations of why Theseus went as there are composers – and, behind them, poets and dramatists. Theseus forgot about her. Or fell in love with someone else. Or she was not suitable material to bring back to Athens as a bride. Or else Bacchus had already fallen in love with Ariadne from afar and made Theseus go, In the myriad retellings, the why is not important: what matters is Ariadne’s pain at his abandonment. Roman painters and sculptors often showed her asleep, unaware he has left. In the first century BC, Catullus described a Roman embroidery, which portrayed Ariadne waking up to see Theseus’ sail on the horizon. On a 1920’s Paris poster for Massinet’s opera Ariane, the boat is leaving as she collapses on the shore.

Visually, the lover’s sail, the lonely waking, the gaze out to sea, the woman who lay down beside her lover and woke to find him gone, have been repeated by artists through the ages. Musically, woman wailing at being abandoned by her lover is a cornerstone of the Western male tradition. Men have always enjoyed being moved by imagining a woman’s pain. In Strauss, Harlequin watches and listens to Ariadne and says How fair and sad. Never has sorrow moved me so.

Ariadne, therefore,. focusses all male imagining of the abandoned woman. Poulenc’s one-hander opera La Voix Humaine distils that voice into the universal voice of all humanity. In her reaction to loss, she becomes the sound of universal loss – “the human voice”. As th eyoung Composer says in Strauss. Aruadne, he explains, is the symbol of all human solitude.

But Ariadne is eventually united with Bacchus. It is interpretations of this union that make her story so rich, so many-sided, and the ambiguities within these interpretations focus the opera which Hofmannsthal and Strauss, after many battles andmch soul searching, produced. Their Ariadne wants to abandon herself to Hermes the Messenger, whom she sees as the God of Death. I will lose myself, she sings, entirely in you. In fact the god she abandons herself to is the divinity of self-abandonment the god of wine. Tony Harrison, in his version of Racine’s play Phèdre (entitled Phaedra Britannica) interpreted this even more cynically even than Zerbinetta: as Ariadne turning to drink and drugs. In Strauss, the Composer interprets her union with Bacchus as a death and a rebirth.


At the beginning of Part Two, Ariadne’s cry is echoed by Echo; it is also accompanied by a harmonium. Strauss differentiates the A from the Z of operatic womanhood musically, by giving them a different backing and texture. Harmonium and Echo for Ariadne; a piano for Zerbinetta, whose musical response to Ariadne’s lament is a brilliant operatic reflection on operatic lament itself.

This is Zerbinetta’s big scene, which Strauss insisted on from the start. It is also the most demanding, involved coloratura aria ever written: oit is as it were, a postmodern reverie on the very nature of aria.

Zerbinetta decides to talk to Ariadne woman to woman. We’ve all been abandoned, she sings. You’re not alone! Left high and dry, we pick up the pieces and go on. As she elaborates the pieces (and lovers) she has picked up, her voice spirals up to high E, in a dizzying apotheosis of endlessly renewable female love; as perceived by men. Then, in a Mozartian rondo, she explains each new one came like a god to sweep me away. In the coda, she explains that when a new god appeared I surrendered and was dumb (stumm).

Zerbinetta’s extraordinary aria ironizes in advance what proceeds to happen on stage. Bacchus and Ariadne meet and misread each other, just as the Composer was bewitched in the Prologue by a Zerbinetta he did not understand. And then they fall in love.

When Ariadne sees Bacchus and his boat she cries Theseus! The first misreading, Then she decides he is the God of Death. Bacchus, for his part, thinks Ariadne is a sorceress. He is young and impressionable like the Composer; and like the boy god, Eros, in the song that came to the Composer in the Prologue. Bacchus has just escaped from Circe, whose potions turn men to swine. Strauss echoes the magic potion music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to underline the parallel between Bacchus’s wine, a potion that turns men to animals, and the illusional magic of falling in love.

Their meeting, full of double entendres and misunderstandings, suggests what a perfect path into love misinterpreting can be.

Who am I? asks Bacchus. The captain of a black ship, replies Ariadne. Well, I am the captain of a ship, he says. Take me away from here, she urges. (“Here” is both psychological and geographic: her place of isolation.) You mean, he sings, surprised, you’d like to get on my ship? Then he defines himself for her, I am a god.

The final scene is full of the mythic metamorphoses that follow love’s benign misunderstandings. The world changes. Stars appear. They are on a journey of love. Are we already there? asks Ariadne. Look how utterly other everything is. They too are changing. You have transformed me, Bacchus cries.

In the middle of this rapture, Zerbinetta’s voice and her modern pragmatic interpretation of Ariadne, as enchanting in its way (dramatically, musically) as any potion, peeps out of the musical texture to repeat the conclusion of her own aria. When the new god comes we all surrender and are stumm.

And so the opera closes with universal human loneliness assuaged, but also with Strauss having his cake while eating it. Throughout the opera we have heard two competing male interpretations of Ariadne. But Strauss was a master of entwinement: of entwining melodies and entwining voices. Instead of choosing between interpretations of Ariadne he entwines them, too. He keeps both readings of what happens to her in play, right to the end. As Zerbinetta predicted, a new man, a new god does come along. But he is also the god of drink and death.


Ruth Padel (www.ruthpadel.com) is a poet, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Her latest book, THE POEM AND THE JOURNEY, explores poetry’s role on the journey of our lives.