Ariadne, art vs. money, Bacchus, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Hermes, high culture vs. low culture, meta-fiction, Richard Strauss, romantic opera, Seattle Opera, the romantic vs. the realistic, vulgarity vs. sublime, Zerbinetta
Yesterday my husband and I attended a matinee performance of Richard Strauss’ early 20th-century, two-act opera Ariadne auf Naxos produced by Seattle Opera. Performed as a two-act opera (rather than its first version of a play and a short opera), the work impressed me as surprisingly postmodern because its first act subtitled “Prologue” was very much in the vein of contemporary meta-fiction, illustrating how its second act, a brief bona-fide opera “Ariadne auf Naxos,” was conceived and performed as a sort of dinner theater. Since I personally appreciate the meta-fictional element of fictional works, I enjoyed the opera very much. (I believe that the meta-fictional element almost always sheds light on the historical and social reality that surrounds the birth of an art work, thus adding more depth to its significance. In our age of full-fledged scepticism, the meta-fictional element helps an art work emanate a more trustworthy sense of realism.)
In the first act, a young composer, the creator of the opera that constitutes the second act, struggles with the bourgeois and entitled attitude of his financial sponsor for the performance of his opera. The super-rich sponsor is obviously one of those nouveau riche industrialists whose emergence is one outcome of the industrial/ bourgeois revolution that transpired in the 19th century. Since the industrialist is tone-deaf to the noble sentiments such as grief unto death or self-sacrifice, he demands the composer to lighten up his hyper-romantic opera by injecting a strong dose of comedy into his tragedy. At the end of the first act, the romantic artist/composer gives in to the sponsor’s demands mostly for two reasons: first, even a romantic artist has to earn income in order to live, and second, he falls in love with the comely comedienne Zerbinetta, who confides in him that she is a deeper person than she appears to be.
The first act clearly set up the theme of the opera, that is the struggle between two opposites, such as high culture and low culture, art and money, and vulgarity and sublime, embodied in two pairs of the characters, the artist/ composer vs. the industrialist, and Ariadne vs. Zerbinetta. And the two oppositional ideas are reconciled by the romantic artist falling in love with the fetching but vulgar commedienne. But, the sense I , and I suppose most of the audience, get from the first act is this: the material reality tramps almost everything. But, of course the work does not end after the first act.
The second act begins as Ariadne’s handmaidens lament their mistress’s incosolable grief. Ariadne is dying because her only love Theseus betrayed her in one of the most heartless manners. (The stage prop representing her cave looked very modern after the manner of Frank Gerry’s architecture, which was more interesting and striking than the usual stage facade of a rock cave, that appeared in the first act.) Then, Zerbinetta together with her clowns appear to counsel Ariadne, preaching the importance of getting over a bad experience with a bad man by searching for a better experience with a better man whether this search is recurrent or not. (I found this a little funny because Zerbinetta’s advice resembles that of self-help books. The advice certainly was not profound.) However, Ariadne is rather in a state of beautiful grief (Marxists may call this sort of attitude bourgeois) than in a state of pathetic fickleness: she wants to die; therefore, she waits for the messenger of death, Hermes. (The relationship between Ariadne and Zerbinetta is akin to that of DonQuixote and Sancho Panza, that is, the romanticist and the realist. Well, some people admire DonQuixote more while others Sancho Panza.) In the final segment of the opera, when Bacchus arrives at the island of Naxos after escaping the clutch of Circe, Ariadne mistakes him for Hermes and falls in love with him ( this detail is ironical – since it suggests that at the root of a romantic love there often is some profound misperception), believing that he will take her to the land of the dead. The opera ends with a romantic duet between Ariadne and Bacchus. Their emotional duet was quite moving just like the arias and duets of many romantic operas. The fact that the opera ends with this romantic duet suggests that Strauss in fact believed in the power of romantic emotions over the realist sense/ thoughts, but it does not mean he acted upon his inner beliefs. On the contrary, it’s likely that Strauss acted exactly in the same manner that the artist/composer did in the first act of Ariadne auf Naxos.