Analysis of Ariadne auf Naxos
Music Composed by Richard Strauss, Libretto Composed by Hugo von Hofmannsthal
There are a few additions to the cast of the myth of Ariadne in Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s opera, Ariadne auf Naxos. While the three beautiful nymphs naturally fit into the ancient mythological setting of the story, the five-member comedy troupe with all their merriment would seem to have no connection to the desolate island of Naxos or its mournful inhabitant. These apparently contrasting groups produce the same effect of emphasizing the inconsolable grief which consumes Ariadne. By introducing new characters into the mythical world of Ariadne, Strauss and von Hofmannsthal present a deeper interpretation of the princess’ emotions and of her resulting behavior. They give insight into Ariadne’s pain and isolation, allowing the audience to empathize with her more intimately. They illustrate the interconnectedness between Ariadne’s relationships with Theseus and Bacchus and her desire for death.
Ariadne’s lament in the opera expresses overwhelming sorrow. The nymphs watching over her say she is “weeping in her sleep.” So heavily does her grief lie upon her that even in sleep her sobs continue. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ariadne’s cries are said to be answered only by the echoing of the rocks on the beach around her. Thus Strauss and Hofmannsthal place three nymphs, including Echo, with Ariadne, who sympathize with her and join in her lamenting, but since the Minoan princess does not recognize their cries, she feels isolated. The composers also integrate a five-member comedy troupe into the plot, who, led by the charming Zerbinetta, make a number of valiant and enthusiastic attempts to console Ariadne and cheer her up. Ariadne simply cannot be consoled and remains, in fact, oblivious to the song and dance going on around her. The jovial nature of the bunch of buffoons presents a sharp contrast to Ariadne’s state of grief. She is “. . . the epitome of human loneliness,” according to the Composer character in the opera’s prologue. She feels the weight of the world on her shoulders, and she simply wants to die.
In both Ovid’s Epistles and the opera, Ariadne desires death. She wants to forget her pain and suffering and the man who caused it. In “Ariadne to Theseus,” Ovid describes her angrily cursing Theseus for not having killed her before he left and actively praying for death to end her misery. Ariadne inspires much more pity in the opera, because she shows no rage toward her former lover, but rather, after remembering some of the experiences they shared, tries not to think about him. She behaves more passively as she allows her emotions to wash over her, simply waiting for death rather than calling out for it. Her view of the Underworld is strangely positive. She sings of “. . . a realm where all is pure. . . .” and where her soul can be free from the misery of living alone. The way Strauss and von Hofmannsthal interpret the myth, Ariadne does, in a sense, die. Since she is in love with the idea of death, she instantly and unrestrainedly falls in love with Bacchus thinking he is the messenger god, Hermes, come to take her to the Underworld. In falling in love with Bacchus, the pain inside her is replaced with joy, and she leaves behind the Ariadne who wept and mourned the betrayal of a lover. The woman who leaves is a different person entirely, free from the chains of despair and sorrow.
The composers of Ariadne auf Naxos elaborate and expand a great deal on Bacchus’ arrival and meeting with Ariadne on Naxos. While the only introduction he receives in Catullus’ Poem 64 is a description of his arrival with a fanfare of satyrs and the shouts of the Bacchantes, the three nymphs in Ariadne give a brief yet comprehensive summary of Bacchus’ life story up to this point, including his parentage and his meeting with Circe the day before. The ship Bacchus arrives on, while beautifully majestic, appears to be a less godlike, more earthly mode of transportation compared with swooping down from the sky as he does in Catullus’ account. This element of humanity in the god allows the audience to more closely empathize with Bacchus by making him more real and believable. Yet still the nymphs make abundantly clear with their cries of “A young god!” and “A charming boy!” that Bacchus is no mere human.
Ariadne’s meeting with Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos shows her vulnerability and its connection to her relationship with the god of wine. The composers insert a new part of the story in which Bacchus spent the day before his arrival on Naxos in the company of Circe on her island. This experience causes him to be slightly wary of the vision of beauty he finds himself in love with the next day, questioning her as to whether she is a sorceress like Circe. Ariadne, rather than questioning who Bacchus is, believes that he must be Hermes, for whom she has waited. It is not clear whether she is ever really convinced that he is not the messenger god, but if so she is so in love with him that it does not matter who he is. All that matters is that he has lifted the weight off her shoulders and set her free from her pain and suffering. In the opera, as in the myth according to Catullus, Bacchus is completely entranced by Ariadne’s beauty. She, in turn, finds comfort in his arms. Xenophon describes Bacchus and Ariadne “… not presenting a burlesque but offering genuine kisses with their lips,” (line 5) for they truly “… felt a mutual affection” (line 6); so it seems from the moment the two catch site of each other in Ariadne.
In a brief account of the story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Bacchus is said to have taken “her crown and set it in the heavens to win her there a star’s eternal glory” (Book VIII). Rather than making her a constellation, in the opera, Bacchus takes Ariadne up to the heavens with him so that they can start a new life together. Still he compares her to the stars. Twice he promises her, “… may the eternal stars die, rather than that you should die in my arms.”
In the prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, the Composer insists Ariadne is “… one of those women who belong to one man only in their life and after that to no one else – to no one else, save Death,” yet Zerbinetta sings at the end of the opera, “When the new god approaches, we surrender without a word.” These two ideas, though they seem to be in complete contradiction, somehow coexist in the heart of Ariadne. The interpretation by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, rather than showing Ariadne as moving on so quickly as to almost herself betray her love of Theseus, illustrates that she was only able to love Bacchus because she loved Theseus. She loved him so deeply she wanted to die without him, and she desired death so strongly she mistook Bacchus for the god of death. In Ariadne auf Naxos, Ariadne is more than just a woman who is left by one lover and forgets her tears as soon as another man comes along. Her emotions run deeper than most people could imagine, and her love is pure and eternal. The composers use the prologue, the nymphs, and the comedians to help illustrate their interpretation of Ariadne without significantly altering the plot as it applies to Ariadne and while remaining true to the mythical nature and size of the story.
by: Becca Goldknopf
Summary of the opera by John W. Freeman, Opera News
Main sources, found in local library:
Movie: Ariadne auf Naxos. A Metropolitan Opera Production of a Maysles' Film. ©1988 METROPOLITAN OPERA ASSOCIATION Inc., New York. All rights reserved.
LP: 1971 (information will be posted sometime on 10/24/2005)
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