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Jessye Norman stars in Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos"

Soprano Jessye Norman
Carol Friedman
Soprano Jessye Norman

Enjoy an opera within and opera, as the glorious Jessye Norman stars in Richard Strauss' comic masterpiece "Ariadne auf Naxos."

Richard Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos

Jessye Norman: Ariadne
Paul Frey: Bacchus
Julia Varady: Der Komponist
Edita Gruberova: Zerbinetta
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau: A music teacher
Wolfgang Millgramm: An officer
Martin Finke: A dancing master / Scaramuccio
Olaf Bär: Harlequin
Gerd Wolf: Truffaldin
Andreas Conrad: Brighella
Eva Lind: Najade
Marianne Rorholm: Dryade
Julie Kaufmann: Echo

The Gewandhaus Orchestra and Chorus
Kurt Masur, conductor

Read a synopsis for Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Read a translation of the text to Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos.

Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos is the operatic equivalent of a bad dream about work. Take, for example, this horrible nightmare: you've started a new job as server in a restaurant, and there is a costumer who is disgruntled. This costumer demands an upside-down, three foot tall milkshake made with Peruvian grassfed goat milk. You inform him that this is your first day, but he has no time for your problems. Just get the milkshake, and get it now.

You race around your new workspace, trying desperately to fulfill this unreasonable request. All seems lost. You will lose your new job, and what's worse, no one will ever hire you again for another job because who could hire someone who can't even make a simple milkshake? Finally you wake up in a cold sweat, and the real world washes back over you.

The characters in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos experience something similar, though without the flood of thankful relief upon waking. For them, the nightmare is real.

The story is this: A young composer has been slaving away at his new masterpiece, an opera seria on the Greek story of Ariadne's abandonment on the isle of Naxos by Theseus.  At the house of a nobleman, as musicians prepare to perform "Ariadne auf Naxos," they are informed that their lofty opera will be followed by a farcical commedia dell'arte play. Considering their production to be the one of greater value, the musicians object to the perceived slight to their art by the nobleman, but their objections fall on deaf ears.

Then the news gets worse. With the curtain about to raise, the decree comes that, in order for the fireworks display (scheduled to follow that evening's entertainment) to begin on time, the opera and the play will have to be performed at the same time

If I were the composer in this scenario, this is about the time I would be pinching myself in hopes of waking up.

Both crews of performers make it work. Ariadne bemoans her fate of having been abandoned on an island by her husband Theseus, when the clowns of the commedia dell'arte troupe arrive and advise Ariadne to let bygones be bygones. Best way to cure a broken heart? Find another man. 

Just then, Bacchus (the god of wine, ecstasy, and theater) arrives, and promises to take Ariadne away from the island of Naxos, make her his wife, and set her as a constellation among the stars. "See," says Zerbinetta, "find a new love, and it all works out in the end." Bacchus and Ariadne sing a love duet to close out both the opera and the opera within the opera. 

Strauss' Ariadne of Naxos pleases on many levels. As a slapstick admonishment of the norms of opera, combining "high art" and "low art," it allows us to laugh at and with a composer as grand as Richard Strauss, by his invitation. Musically, it is lush and warm. But it is the creativity of the story that makes Ariadne auf Naxos such a joy. Strauss (and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal) deftly pay homage to operatic and theatrical traditions - a play within a play, like in Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream; the focus on Greek tragedies as themes, as in Monteverdi's Orfeo; the comic abuse of servants by masters, as in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro - while at the same time forging from these well-worn plots one that is unique, seen nowhere else in opera. It is a thrill to experience something familiar that is also entirely reinvented.

Jessye Norman singing "Ein schönes war" from Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos


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Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.