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Richard Strauss

Ariadne on Naxos


Ariadne Giving Some Thread To Theseus To Leave Labyrinth by Pelagius Palagi

Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60 by Richard Strauss

Recorded live in Baden-Baden in 2012

Orchestra: Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden
Conductor:  Christian Thielemann 
Staged by Philippe Arlaud
Directed by Brian Large


Ariadne/Primadonna: Renée Fleming
Ein Musiklehrer: Eike Wilm Schulte
Der Komponist: Sophie Koch
Bacchus: Robert Dean Smith
Zerbinetta: Jane Archibald

Ariadne auf Naxos (Ariadne on Naxos), Op. 60, is an opera by Richard Strauss with a German libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Combining slapstick comedy and consummately beautiful music, the opera's theme is the competition between high and low art for the public's attention.

Ariadne auf Naxos, partly classical mythology, partly commedia dell’arte, and partly eighteenth-century Viennese satire, was first thought of, by Strauss and Von Hofmannsthal, as a little gift. The gift was for Max Reinhardt, the great stage director, who had stepped in and saved the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier. In its original version Ariadne was intended to be the special entertainment given by Monsieur Jourdain for his guests in the Moliere comedy Le bourgeois gentilhomme. So that the evening would not be too long, a good half of Moliere had to be sacrificed. The resulting entertainment was, nevertheless, still very long, rather inconclusive in its effect, and very expensive to put on. It required, not only a whole opera company, but a whole dramatic company as well.

At any rate, the mixture was not considered successful, wherefore Moliere was dropped completely, a prologue was written and composed, and the opera slightly changed. It is this revised version that is generally given today and described in the following paragraphs.

Ariadne in Naxos, by Evelyn De Morgan, 1877



(Ariadne on Naxos)

Opera in prologue and one act by Richard Strauss
with libretto in German by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

The prima donna  (later Ariadne)    -soprano
The tenor  (later Bacchus)                   -tenor 
Zerbinetta                                              -coloratura soprano    
Harlequin, a player                              -baritone 
Scaramuccio, a player                        -tenor
Truffaldino, a player                           -bass 
Brighella, a player                                -tenor 
The composer                                       -soprano
His music master                                -baritone
The dancing master                             -tenor
A wigmaker                                            -baritone
A lackey                                                   -bass 
An officer                                                -tenor 
The Major-Domo                                 -spoken 
Naiad, a nymph                                      -high soprano
Dryad, a nymph                                     -contralto
Echo, a nymph                                        -soprano



Time: 18th century
Place: Vienna

Stuttgart premiere, 25 October 1912
Vienna premiere, 4 October 1916 (revised version)

Titian - Bacchus and Ariadne

Greek mythology

Ariadne, in Greek mythology, was the daughter of Minos, King of Crete  and a son of Zeus, and Minos' queen Pasiphaë, a daughter of Helios. She is mostly associated with mazes and labyrinths because of her involvement in the myths of the Minotaur and Theseus. Her father put her in charge of the labyrinth where sacrifices were made as part of reparations (either to Poseidon or to Athena, depending on the version of the myth); later, she helped Theseus overcome the Minotaur and save the potential sacrificial victims. In other stories, she became the bride of the god Dionysus, with the question of her being mortal or a goddess varying in those accounts.


Minos and Theseus
Since ancient Greek myths are passed down through oral tradition, many variations of this and other myths exist.[5] According to an Athenian version of the legend, Minos attacked Athens after his son was killed there. The Athenians asked for terms, and were required to sacrifice seven young men and seven maidens to the Minotaur every seven or nine years. One year, the sacrificial party included Theseus, the son of King Aegeus, who volunteered to come and kill the Minotaur. Ariadne fell in love at first sight, and helped him by giving him a sword and a ball of thread, so that he could find his way out of the Minotaur's labyrinth.


In Hesiod and most other accounts, Theseus abandoned Ariadne sleeping on Naxos, and Dionysus rediscovered and wedded her. In a few versions of the myth, Dionysus appeared to Theseus as they sailed away from Crete, saying that he had chosen Ariadne as his wife and demanding that Theseus leave her on Naxos for him; this has the effect of absolving the Athenian culture-hero of desertion. The vase-painters of Athens often showed Athena leading Theseus from the sleeping Ariadne to his ship.

With Dionysus, she was the mother of Oenopion, the personification of wine, Staphylus (related to grapes), Thoas, Peparethus, Phanus, Eurymedon, Enyeus, Ceramus, Maron, Euanthes, Latramys and Tauropolis. Her wedding diadem was set in the heavens as the constellation Corona Borealis.

Ariadne remained faithful to Dionysus but was later killed by Perseus at Argos. In other myths she hanged herself from a tree, like Erigone and the hanging Artemis, a Mesopotamian theme. Some scholars have posited, due to her thread-spinning and winding associations, that she was a weaving goddess, like Arachne, supporting this theory with the mytheme of the Hanged Nymph. Dionysus descended into Hades and brought her and his mother Semele back. They then joined the gods in Olympus.

Dionysus (Bacchus)

Dionysus is the god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine, of ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy in ancient Greek religion and myth. Wine played an important role in Greek culture, and the cult of Dionysus was the main religious focus for its unrestrained consumption. 

He is also known as Bacchus, the name adopted by the Romans and the frenzy he induces is bakkheia. His thyrsus, sometimes wound with ivy and dripping with honey, is both a beneficent wand and a weapon used to destroy those who oppose his cult and the freedoms he represents. As Eleutherios ("the liberator"), his wine, music and ecstatic dance free his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subvert the oppressive restraints of the powerful. Those who partake of his mysteries are possessed and empowered by the god himself.


In Greek mythology, the Naiads (Ancient Greek: Ναϊάδες) are a type of female spirit, or nymph, presiding over fountains, wells, springs, streams, brooks and other bodies of fresh water.

A dryad is a tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology. Drys signifies "oak" in Greek, and dryads are specifically the nymphs of oak trees, but the term has come to be used for all tree nymphs in general. They were normally considered to be very shy creatures except around the goddess Artemis, who was known to be a friend to most nymphs.

In Greek mythology, Echo was an Oread who resided on Mount Cithaeron. Zeus loved consorting with beautiful nymphs and often visited them on Earth. Eventually, Zeus's wife, Hera, became suspicious, and came from Mt. Olympus in an attempt to catch Zeus with the nymphs. Echo, by trying to protect Zeus (Zeus ordered her to protect him), endured Hera's wrath, and Hera made her only able to speak the last words spoken to her. So when Echo met Narcissus and fell in love with him, she was unable to tell him how she felt and was forced to watch him as he fell in love with himself.


Gioacchino Pagliei - The Naiads, 1881


Ariadne - John William Waterhouse

Ariadne auf Naxos is in two parts, called the Prologue and the Opera. The first part shows the backstage circumstances leading up to the second part, which is in fact an opera within an opera.


The prologue takes the place of the Moliere story, but the scene is now in the home of a very wealthy Viennese bourgeois gentleman of the eighteenth century. This anonymous gentleman is planning an elaborate entertainment for his guests, and the various artists involved are having troubles backstage. For instance, immediately after the orchestral prelude, a pompous major-domo tells the Music Master that a comedy is to follow the opera. And when the Music Master has to tell this to his pupil and prot6gd, the Composer, that young fellow is quite distraught. It is not his only trouble. He wants a rehearsal with the leading lady; he wants one with the tenor; and he even thinks of new and lovely tunes to put into the work at the last moment. Meantime he meets the leading comedienne, Zerbinetta, and is at once smitten with her. For a moment he is almost reconciled, but now the Major-Domo comes back with a really shocking rearrangement. The master does not want the comedy to follow the opera; he wants them played simultaneously! And they mustn't take longer than the opera would have taken alone.

Angelica Kauffmann - Ariadne Abandoned by Theseus

In a great hurry—and with considerable confusion—a compromise is worked out so that both things can go on at once. Just how this is done will be seen in the description of the opera itself. Meantime, however, the Composer is more and more attracted to the coquettish Zerbinetta, and there is a very attractive love duet between them. But it is time for the show to go on. The Music Master summons everyone; the Composer sings a happy hymn to music, and comes down to earth only at the last moment. He sees the vulgar comedians preparing to ruin his opera, and he runs off in despair.

Ariadne Painting by Asher Brown Durand


In Greek mythology we are told that Ariadne, Princess of Crete, had helped Theseus slay the Minotaur. Naturally, she therefore fell in love with the hero; and, equally naturally, he carried her off with him. According to one legend (the one followed in this work), he unceremoniously abandoned her on the island of Naxos. Here we find her when the opera begins. She is watched over by three so-called “elementary beings," Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, who marvel over her beauty. She sleeps a good deal, but when she is awake, she yearns, in fine Wagnerian fashion, for Death, expecting somehow, to be carried off by Death as though by her lover, Theseus.

Ciari Giuseppe Bartolomeo - Bacchus and Ariadne

The coquettish, comical, earthy Zerbinetta and her friends try to cheer the neurotic demigoddess. These friends, who come directly out of the commedia dell'arte, are a male quartet named Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldino, and Brighella. First Harlequin (the baritone of the quartet) tries—to no avail. Then all four try, with both dance and song. Still no luck. Finally Zerbinetta joins them. And here she has a long recitative and aria—the most difficult music, bar none, ever composed for a coloratura. She tries—gaily, melodiously—to teach Ariadne her own philosophy of life and love, which is always to feel in love with and faithful to one man, but at the same time welcoming the next. It has been this way with a whole list of men, some of whom she names, and sometimes she has carried on with two of them at once. Her aria, with its wide jumps and decorative roulades, is pure nymphomaniacal coloratura. Ariadne remains uninterested; in fact, she retires into her cave before the aria is over. And at its end the unembarrassed Zerbinetta gaily acts out her philosophy of love. She flirts outrageously with three of the men at once— only to abandon them all and take up with the fourth.

Now Ariadne's three attendant nymphs come on. They have seen a beautiful god approaching, and they summon Ariadne from her cave. Off-stage is heard the voice of the young god Bacchus. He has just escaped from the enchantress Circe and is singing of this triumph. Ariadne at once hails him, taking him for the long-awaited messenger of Death. Bacchus, however, is anything but that: he is the god of wine. Ariadne and he fall in love at once; they sing a long and powerful love duet; and they retire, at its end, into the cave. (Eventually, we are told by mythology, they were married.)

But just before Bacchus utters his final words of love, from within the cave, Zerbinetta appears for a brief moment and reminds us that when a new man—or god—comes along, ladies are likely to find him pretty wonderful.

Bacchus and Ariadne - Alessandro Turch

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