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Ariadne auf Naxos in a nutshell

All you need to know about Richard Strauss’ backstage comedy — right here…

What is the story?

Ariadne auf Naxos is an opera within an opera! The first half is a ‘prologue’, which sets the scene for the ‘performance’ in the second half.

We begin in a 1950s Italian studio, where two different films are being made: a comedy starring the flirtatious Zerbinetta, and a serious opera about Ariadne from Greek mythology. However, chaos breaks out when the Producer announces that there isn’t enough money to shoot both films, so they must merge into one! Cue much diva-ish behaviour from the opera’s Composer, Prima Donna and Tenor

The final film shoot opens with broken-hearted Ariadne, abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos. Zerbinetta and the troupe of comedians try to cheer her up, but eventually suggest that Ariadne just needs to move on and find a new man. At that moment, a stranger arrives on the island – it is the god Bacchus. Could he be the one?

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Elizabeth Llewellyn as Ariadne with members of the Chorus of Opera North © Richard H Smith

Who are the key characters?

The Prima Donna — also Ariadne in the opera (soprano)
The Tenor — also Bacchus in the opera (tenor)
The Composer (mezzo-soprano)
His Music Master (bass)
The Dancing Master (tenor)
Zerbinetta — leader of the comedy troupe (soprano)
Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Brighella, Truffaldino — members of the comedy troupe (bass-baritone, tenor, tenor, bass)

Adrian Dwyer as Brighella, Dominic Sedgwick as Harlequin, Jennifer France as Zerbinetta, John Savournin as Truffaldino and Alex Banfield as Scaramuccio © Richard H Smith

What is the music like?

Strauss’ score for Ariadne auf Naxos is incredibly colourful, with sumptuous orchestration. It’s also full of contrasts — as high art collides with low art in the plot, giddy waltzes mix with comic dances and salon songs, such as Harlequin‘s ‘Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen’ (Love, Hate, Hopes, Cares). Bacchus and Ariadne’s climactic duet as they fall in love is radiant, with soaring vocal lines.

A real highlight is Zerbinetta’s showstopping aria ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ (Mighty Princess), packed with sparking coloratura and climbing to a sky-high top D! It’s also full of word painting — she rattles of a list of her own past lovers, the music for each one reflecting their characters…

What is this production like?

This inventive staging by director Rodula Gaitanou is set in a 1950s Italian film studio – inspired by the famous Cinecittà Studios in Rome and the work of filmmaker Federico Fellini. During the prologue, we are backstage on the film set in the world of make-up artists, costume rails and a camera crew scuttling around.

Ariadne’s rock on the island of Naxos is all constructed within the interior of the studio, and cameras roll throughout the final performance, capturing the action…

First seen in Sweden in 2018, this co-production with GöteborgsOperan now makes its much-anticipated journey to Opera North!

See production photos »

John Savournin as Major-Domo, Dean Robinson as Music Master and Hanna Hipp as Composer (top) with the Company of Ariadne auf Naxos © Richard H Smith

What language is it in?

In this staging, the ‘prologue’ is sung in multiple languages – creating the atmosphere of a real life opera rehearsal studio! Zerbinetta and her troupe’s language is English, the Composer and Music Master converse in German and the Prima Donna and Tenor speak Italian, making their diva-ish outbursts even more volcanic.

The actual ‘opera’ in part two is sung entirely in German. And don’t worry, there are English surtitles throughout.

Who was the composer?

Ariadne auf Naxos was written by Richard Strauss (1864-1949) with a libretto by his main collaborator, Hugo von Hoffmansthal.

Although influenced by operatic giant Wagner (Ring cycle, Parsifal) and viewed as his successor, Strauss became famous — or rather infamous — in his own right for pushing boundaries. His first big hits Salome in 1905 and Elektra in 1909 both caused a furore with their violent dissonance!

This was followed by something totally different — a nostalgic bittersweet romance in Der Rosenkavalier in 1911. And then came Ariadne auf Naxos, a backstage comedy of bloated egos and broken hearts, showing another side to this pioneering composer.

Richard Strauss in 1917 © Emil Orlík | 1916 vocal score for Ariadne auf Naxos

A little history

Ariadne auf Naxos began life as short piece of musical entertainment to be performed at the end of a play: Molière’s satire, Le bourgeois gentilhomme. However, the play + opera combination did not go down too well when it premiered in 1912, not least because it ran to nearly six hours!

It was also expensive, requiring a company of actors as well as an opera company. So in 1913, librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal suggested that the play part be replaced by a sung prologue in which we meet the soprano who will sing Ariadne in the opera, and the tenor who will sing Bacchus. The revised version was first performed in 1916, and was a triumph.

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