Sunday Classics snapshots: Meet the composer, Richard Strauss-style
The first part of the Prologue to Ariadne auf Naxos, with Paul Schoeffler as the Music Master and Sena Jurinac as the Composer (we're going to hear the radiant Jurinac in her glorious 1958 studio recording, which I've described as the best recorded performance I know of any operatic role, and Schoeffler in a 1944 live performance), staged by Günter Rennert and conducted by Karl Böhm, filmed at Salzburg in 1965 -- the remaining four parts are also on YouTube.
It was along, arduous path from conception to ultimate creation, the strange entertainment concocted by Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, his librettist on two previous, wildly different operas, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier, in collaboration with the great stage director Max Reinhardt, who had collaborated with them on Rosenkavalier.
The original idea was to provide a half-hour musical entertainment to be inserted in an adaptation (by Hofmannsthal) for Reinhardt of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme, with incidental music by Strauss. Not surprisingly, the half-hour entertainment grew and grew, until it was a weird one-act opera that -- despite being scored for chamber orchestra -- would tax the vocal resources of the greatest opera houses. And it combined two seemingly uncombinable art forms: a deeply serious opera seria that is observed, commented on, and eventually intruded on by a troupe of commedia dell'arte musical comedians. And of course it was imprisoned inside the play, and constitued too much opera for playgoers and too much play for operagoers.
Long story short: Eventually Hofmannsthal and Strauss liberated Ariadne by creating a Prologue, set backstage in the room of the home of the richest man in Vienna where the evening's entertainment is shortly to be performed. And they created the character of the Composer, the creator of a deeply serious opera seria. The new Prologue not only explains how these two wildly different entertainments came to be scheduled for the same evening's entertainment (and, eventually, how they come to be combined) but creates for us the world of a theatrical backstage. (The always-practical Strauss arranged an orchestral suite from the incidental music he had written for the play, in its German guise as Der Bürger als Edelmann.)
We've already heard the very opening of the Prologue -- still scored for chamber orchestra, as the original opera-intermezzo was.
R. STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos: Prologue: Orchestral introduction
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, Mar. 28, 1970
AS THE CURTAIN RISES ON THE PROLOGUE --
We meet the Music Master, who has finally tracked down the Major-Domo of the palace to check out a shocking, unimaginable rumor he has heard --
that at the festive performance here at the palace tonight -- after my pupil's opera seria -- I can scarcely believe my ears -- it is the intention to present yet another so-called musical entertainment -- a sort of operetta or some such vulgar buffoonery, in the Italian buffo style. That cannot take place.What the Music Master's pupil has created is a classically styled serious opera depicting the deathly grief of Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on the isle of Naxos, until the arrival of the god Bacchus arrives, whom she takes to be the god of death. Instead, Ariadne is transfigured by the power of Bacchus's love.
Now, when the Music Master goes so far as to announce to the Major-Domo that his pupil the Composer will never permit his great work of art to be followed by a vulgar buffo-stye vaudeville, the Major-Domo quickly and peremptorily set him straight.
What did I hear? Who will not permit it! I was not aware that, except for my noble master, in whose palace you will have the honor to exhibit your artistic skill this evening, anyone here was entitled to permit -- much less order -- anything!The clincher, not surprisingly in the home of the richest man in Vienna, is that "the stipulated fee, wwith a handsome gratuity in the bargain, will pass by way of my hand to yours." It is, both the Music Master and we the audience are forcefully reminded, all about the money. It's left to the Music Master to wonder as he heads offstage: "However shall I break it to my pupil?"
Shortly thereafter, we meet the Composer himself -- a role Strauss knew from the outset he would make a "trouser role," sung by a woman, in the tradition of Mozart's ardent young page Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. The only person he finds onstage to talk to is a footman.
A large, sparesly furnished, poorly lighted room in the house of a rich man. Left and right are two doors. In the center a round table. In the background can be seen preparations for a private theater. Paper-hangers and carpenters and carpenters have put up a back cloth, the reverse of which is visible. Between this part of the set and the front an open passage extends across the stage.
COMPOSER [coming forward hurriedly]: My dear fellow, find the fiddles for me. Tell them to assemble here for a short, last-minute rehearsal, so that we all understand each other.
FOOTMAN [malicious and coarse]: The fiddles will find it hard to come, first, because they haven't any feet, and second, because they're in one's hand.
COMPOSER [naively, pedantically, not noticing that he is being mocked]: When I say "the fiddles," I mean the players.
FOOTMAN [maliciously, arrogantly]: Ah so! At this moment they're where I too should be going! And where I shall be pretty soon -- instead of wasting time here with you.
COMPOSER [naively, innocently]: Where is that?
FOOTMAN [rudely]: At table!
COMPOSER [agitated]: Now? Eating, a quarter of an hour before my opera is due to begin?
FOOTMAN: When I say "at table," I mean, of course, at His Lordship's table, not at the musicians'.
COMPOSER: What may you mean by that?
FOOTMAN: They're playing. Capito? So it's not the moment for you to speak.
COMPOSER [uneasily]: Then I'll rehearse Ariadne's aria with the lady -- [He advances towards the door on the right.]
FOOTMAN [stopping him]: The lady you want isn't in there. As for the one who is there, it's not the right moment for you o speak to her either.
COMPOSER [naively, proudly]: Do you know who I am? It's for me to speak to anyone who's in my opera whenever I feel like it!
FOOTMAN [laughing mockingly]: Heh-heh-heh! Heh-heh-heh!
[Gestures dismissively and goes out.]
COMPOSER [knocks on the door on the right, gets no answer, then, suddenly enraged, shouts after the FOOTMAN]: You ass, you! Impudent, saucy donkey!
The insolent fellow leaves me alone here in front of the door -- plants me here and goes off!
[His expression shifts from anger to one of deep thought.]
Oh, there is still so much I'd like to change at the eleventh hour -- and today is my opera --
Oh, the donkey! What joy!
[He takes up the melody that has just occurred to him.]
Thou almighty god!
Oh, my throbbing heart! Thou almighty god!
[Thinks over the melody, looks in his pocket for a piece of music paper, finds it, crumples it up, and slaps himself on the head.]
I must drum it into Bacchus's head that he's a god! A blessed youth! Not a conceited clown in a leopard skin! I think that is his door.
[Runs to the second door on the left and knocks -- meanwhile he continues the melody, full voice.
O thou boy, thou babe, thou almighty god!
-- English translation by Peggie Cochrane
Julia Varady (s), Composer; Rolf Wollrad (bs), Footman; Gewandhaus Orchestra (Leipzig), Kurt Masur, cond. Philips, recorded January 1988
Tatiana Troyanos (ms), Composer; Alois Pernerstorfer (bs-b), Footman; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance, 1967
[in English] Janet Baker (ms), Composer; unidentified Footman; Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Norman Del Mar, cond. Live performance from Glasgow's Theater Royal, 1977
Note that the pair of tunes that the Composer conjures here -- the one for "Du Venussohn," then the one for "O du Knabe, du Kind" -- are the only bits of music Strauss incorporated into the Prologue from the Bürger als Edelmann incidental music.
JUMPING TO THE COMPLETE PROLOGUE
There's so much more we could, and should, be looking at in the Prologue, but for here and now, I'm just going to throw in the complete Prologue, in two performances, both of which I've dubbed from LPs: a famous 1944 radio broadcast performance from the stage of the soon-to-be-destroyed (by American bombs) Vienna State Opera, in honor of the composer's 80th birthday, and what's probably still my favorite Ariadne recording, now extremely hard to find.
Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find a free online source for English texts, so I've gone with this slender plot synopsis.
R. STRAUSS: Ariadne auf Naxos (revised version, 1916), Op. 60: Prologue
At the home of the richest man in Vienna, preparations for an evening of music are under way. Two troupes of musicians and singers have arrived. One is a burlesque group, led by the saucy comedienne Zerbinetta. The other is an opera company, who will present an opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, the work of the Composer. Members of the two companies quarrel over which performance should be presented first. However, the preparations are thrown into confusion by an announcement by the Major-Domo. The dinner for the assembled guests has run longer than planned. Therefore, both performances must take place at the same time as ordered and paid for. The performances must not run one minute later than scheduled, despite the late start, since at nine o'clock there will be fireworks in the garden.
At first, the impetuous young Composer refuses to discuss any changes to his opera. But his teacher, the Music Master, points out that his pay depends on accepting the situation, and counsels him to be prudent, and Zerbinetta turns the full force of her charm on him, so he drops his objections. The cast of the opera seria intrigue against each other, each demanding that his arias not be cut while the other performers' parts are cut instead. A Dance Master introduces Zerbinetta into the plot, which she understands from her very own perspective, and she gets ready for the performance. The Composer realizes what he has assented to, plunges into despair and storms out.
-- synopsis from Wikipedia
Walter Berry (b), Music Master; Kurt Preger (spkr), Major-Domo; Ljubomir Pantscheff (bs), Footman; Kurt Equiluz (t), Officer; Sena Jurinac (s), Composer; Jan Peerce (t), Tenor (later Bacchus); Harald Pröglhöf (bs), Wig-Maker; Roberta Peters (s), Zerbinetta; Leonie Rysanek (s), Prima Donna (later Ariadne); Murray Dickie (t), Dance Master; Vienna Philharmonic, Erich Leinsdorf, cond. RCA-Decca, recorded 1958
Paul Schoeffler (bs-b), Music Master; Alfred Muzzarelli (spkr), Major-Domo; Hans Schwaiger (bs), Footman; Friedrich Jelinek (t), Officer; Irmgard Seefried (s), Composer; Max Lorenz (t), Tenor (later Bacchus); Hermann Baier (bs), Wig-Maker; Alda Noni (s), Zerbinetta; Maria Reining (s), Prima Donna (later Ariadne); Josef Witt (t), Dance Master; Vienna State Opera Orchestra, Karl Böhm, cond. Live performance in honor of Strauss's 80th birthday, June 11, 1944