Ariadne on Naxos, Opera by R. Strauss
A wealthy gentleman throws a party for which he has arranged two mismatched entertainments. One, a new tragic opera based on Greek legend; the other, a comedy presented by a troupe of harlequins. When dinner overruns, the host’s butler announces that both works will have to be performed together to ensure that the firework display his master has arranged for his guests starts on time.
This is the ingenious pretext that Richard Strauss concocted with his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, for their final version of Ariadne on Naxos, which returns to the theatre where it was premiered on 4 October 1916, the Vienna State Opera. Following the prologue to this extraordinary opera within an opera, we find Ariadne lamenting her fate after being abandoned by her lover, Theseus. Zerbinetta, alongside her company of clowns, does her best to convince the distraught Ariadne that she will find love again.
The news that a ship is approaching the island leads Ariadne to assume that it is steered by Hermes to deliver her to the death she now craves. When it is Bacchus who arrives instead, Ariadne, blinded by her grief, initially mistakes him for Theseus. Happily, her sadness gives way to love as she comes to see Bacchus for who he really is, confirming Zerbinetta's prediction.
While some believe that the opera debates the relative merits of low and high art, it is just as tempting to view Ariadne on Naxos as a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the problems Strauss and Hofmannsthal created for themselves when they first presented the opera in Stuttgart four years earlier. The original 'Ariadne' followed an adaptation of Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme and audiences had to endure a marathon lasting more than six hours.
No wonder Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s fictional patron demands that his divertissements be wrapped up before the pyrotechnics!