OP0519. ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, w.Nagano Cond. Opéra de Lyon Ensemble; Margaret Price, Gösta Winbergh, Sumi Jo, Ernst Theo Richter, etc. 2-Virgin Classics 7243 5 45111, recorded 1997, w.Elaborate 78pp. Libretto-brochure, Slipcase Set. Very long out-of-print, Final Copy! - 724354511127
“At last! After decades of waiting, admirers of the high art of Richard Stauss can hear the first version of ARIADNE AUF NAXOS, with its musical-theater prolog based on Molière's BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME. That we should have had to wait so long is a direct indicator of the incomprehension that has shrouded the career of Richard Strauss as a whole. ARIADNE in its first version fits none of the stereotypes that govern the general understanding of Strauss' later career: it is not an exercise in nostalgia. It's a fight between high and low, and the high wins out. The balance is much trickier in the 1912 version. The Prolog is replaced by a series of straight theatrical scenes, intermixed with singing and dancing; the central character is Monsieur Jourdain, a nouveau-riche Parisian who is organizing various entertainments at his home, leading once again to the opera ARIADNE. He auditions singers for the opera, indulges in his taste for more popular song, reviews the work of the Dancing Master, learns some elegant steps from him, and listens to snippets of the ARIADNE orchestra through an open door. He also hosts a raucous dinner that culminates in a Kitchen Boy jumping out of an omelette surprise and dancing erotically before the company. Jourdain's personal whimsies govern the course of events more than do the temperamental and ideological conflicts of the later ARIADNE.
This, at least, is the impression we gain from the abridged version of the play presented on Kent Nagano's new Virgin Classics recording: the spoken text is a series of monologs by Jourdain, with such characters as the Music Master, the nobleman Dorrante, and the beautiful, widowed Marquise left by the wayside. You can get a full idea of the Molière play from Michael Kennedy's careful annotations. It's inevitably a rather choppy listening experience, with bouts of spoken German intermingling with Strauss' loving parodies of the French Baroque. But the force of the idea comes through: Jourdain is a philistine, but a lovable one, and although he makes himself ridiculous in his attempts to act the aristocrat, his love of entertainment in forms high and low sets the evening's purely musical segment in motion. The high and low are not at odds, as in the later ARIADNE: from the start the two are inextricably tangled. This is the particular context for Strauss' well-known BOURGEOIS GENTILHOMME music, heard here in extended form and with vocal attachments in the form of the Duet of the Shepherd and Shepherdess and ‘Jourdain's Song’. Most of the music in this ARIADNE will in fact sound familiar, but the frame for the piece has changed enough to change the music's meaning. All of it is a complex reflection of the ambivalent taste of the taste-maker Jourdain: and what emerges is a picture of a music being directly generated by the patron-listener- a conception that must have set off a dizzying hall-of-mirrors effect when the opera was first staged in Stuttgart, Berlin, and Vienna. (John Corigliano tried a tamer and jokier version of this opera-as-mir-ror-of-the-audience idea with his GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES, based again on Molière.)
In the main body of the opera, the changes are even more telling. Greater emphasis is placed on the role of Zerbinetta: she no longer serves merely as comic contrast, a comedienne running amok in serious opera, but instead becomes an active, acute commentator on the action, and also a second voice of the worldly sensibility of Jourdain. Her major aria in the later part of the opera, as Ariadne approaches Bacchus, was cut for the 1916 version and is here restored: Zerbinetta sings in praise of Bacchus, an animal youth ‘who hurls himself panther-like on some beast’ (there's an odd parallel between this image and the Kitchen Boy in the first part). What's most significant, however, is the new ending: after that famous fade toD Major, as Ariadne and Bacchus waft away to Bacchus's grotto, Zerbinetta reappears with some pointed commentary on the proceedings: ‘The new god approaches and we surrender without a word. . . .always the new tremulous wonder that the heart should understand itself so little!’ She has a ‘note of mocking triumph’, the libretto says, as she delivers the moral of the evening. Jourdain, who was wrapped up in the music, remains behind, and delivers a short, self-deprecating speech before the curtain: ‘Everyone keeps on at me about my association with people of quality, but I can't imagine anything nicer’. This ironic close is exactly what the later version painfully lacks: it makes no sense that the uproarious prolog should be paired with an entirely solemn ending. The earlier version retains that self-conscious sophistication to the end, and the somewhat over-the-top ‘serious’ music of Ariadne and Bacchus makes better sense within it. What it shows is that the heights of opera, the heights of all art, almost always have someone's money behind them, and the attempt to make high art into a pure, self-contained entity is doomed to hypocritical failure. Strauss, of course, knew this better than anyone.
This ARIADNE works well on recording. Ernst Theo Richter gives Jourdain's monologs with great panache, and also with great speed, so that one does not tire of the German prose. The cast is accomplished, if not exceptional. Sumi Jo, as Zerbinetta, takes all the coloratura with ease and applies some delightful shadings of color….Margaret Price brings her natural nobility and discerning expressivity to Ariadne, even if her voice has fallen off in strength. Gösta Windbergh, as Bacchus, is for the most part smooth and fresh in his Romantic addresses as Bacchus and ringingly heroic at the climaxes - although from time to time his voice thins out and his pitches go astray. Nagano gets some ravishing playing from his Lyon orchestra - he is particularly adept in the Lully parodies, getting a bright, spiky sound that compares favorably with the classic recording by Reiner. There remains a bigger question: what's the future for this original ARIADNE on opera stages? The spoken-word sections are obviously unlikely fare outside of very specialized houses, and so the whole first part is probably doomed to remain a curiosity. But I wonder whether the cuts to the main part of the opera could be restored and whether some compromise ending could be worked out in which the ironic-comic close could have its place. It would be easy to bring back Zerbinetta's final appearance, for example, and then perhaps the patron who was kept offstage in the Prolog could appear to speak some version of Jourdain's lines. I certainly hope that not only Strauss fans but also conductors and singers will get hold of this remarkable recording and contemplate unrealized possibilities in this fascinating opera.
Nagano's ARIADNE is a vital, necessary recording.”
-- Alex Ross, FANFARE, May, 1998