Edinburgh Festival 97: Hit or myth?

Malcolm Hayes picks his way through the labyrinthine musical history of Richard Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos'

It's easy to forget today that even such staples of the operatic repertoire as Fidelio and Madama Butterfly were flops at their first performances and only finally won public acceptance after a healthy dose of remedial re-writing. Recent years have seen an upsurge of interest in resurrecting the near-forgotten first versions of such pieces. Sometimes the motive relates more to the over-sophistication of jaded operatic palates ("What are we going to do with another boring old Butterfly?") than to convincing artistic judgment. (For my money, the first version of Butterfly was indeed worth seeing - once.) Sometimes, however, this penchant for operatic exhumation shows that an indifferent early response has indeed given posterity a skewed notion of a work's shortcomings. This year's Edinburgh International Festival offers a chance to find out into which category the first version of Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos belongs.

Since its premiere in Vienna in 1916, a Strauss opera by that name has always held a place in the repertory: this, however, is not the work's first version, which Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal completed in 1912, but a substantial revision of it. Following the wild success of their first collaboration, Der Rosenkavalier, of the previous year, both artists were looking to do something (a) equally interesting (for themselves at least) and (b) different. The idea they came up with was a singular confection of Moliere's play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme and the Greek myth of the Cretan princess Ariadne's abandonment on the island of Naxos by Theseus, the Minotaur-killer.

The result - a long and intricate work in which the happy-ever-after story of Ariadne's subsequent apotheosis as the lover of the god Bacchus was presented as a postprandial operatic divertissement within Moliere's original play (for which Strauss also wrote a substantial quantity of incidental music) - was first seen in Stuttgart in 1912, in a lavish production by Max Reinhardt, and has rarely surfaced since. It did turn up at the 1950 Edinburgh Festival, conducted by Sir Thomas Beecham - and it is this event which, in its 50th birthday year, the festival is commemorating with tonight's new staging by Scottish Opera. Operatic sightings don't come much rarer than this.

So what is the work's problem? Certainly not its quality, as is clear from the music which Strauss recycled from the original 1912 Ariadne both into its 1916 revision (which ditches Moliere and integrates the action of the opera into a new ad hoc structure based upon the idea of an opera company and a commedia dell'arte troupe being forced to share the same stage) and into the 1917 reworking of Moliere's play which Strauss and Hofmannsthal also produced - some of the new music from which additionally found its way into the composer's later Bourgeois gentilhomme concert suite. (Confused? Who wouldn't be?)

The eternal obstacle to putting on the 1912 version of Ariadne is that it requires the resources of both a theatre and an opera company, on the same stage and on the same night - something near enough impossible in the course of a normal season, but less so in a festival context.

"The first night in 1912 wasn't exactly a flop," says Richard Armstrong, Scottish Opera's music director, and the conductor of the new staging, "but they had a glossy reception in the interval, lasting about two hours. That made for a six-hour evening altogether, which didn't help. We've thought about how to move it along rather quicker than that."

The casting difficulties, too, are less extreme than they might be, given that the 1916 version is the one that everyone learns: "Fortunately the part of Bacchus is identical in both versions," says Armstrong. "And Ariadne only has a couple more lines in the 1912 one. The real problem is Zerbinetta [the commedia comedienne]. Her coloratura aria in the first version is longer than in the 1916 one, and even wilder - really off the wall. She also has a later aria, which doesn't appear in the 1916 version at all. We know that, when Beecham did the score in Edinburgh in 1950, this second aria was heavily cut. And that may also have been the case in Stuttgart in 1912."

So tonight's performance, at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, may well be the world premiere of the 1912 score as the composer actually intended it? "There isn't enough evidence to be 100 per cent sure about that. But it's quite possible."

Martin Duncan, artistic director of the Nottingharn Playhouse and stage director of this new Ariadne, also emphasises the extreme demands that the 1912 score places on the singer (Lisa Saffer) playing Zerbinetta. "In this version, it's a considerable acting role as well. So are some of the others. The real problem for the director is how to get these different demands of singing and acting sorted out, and then working together."

And what was his solution? "I had two weeks separately with the singers, another two with the actors, and brought them together for the last two. It seems to have worked - they're both finding out how to spark off each other."

"I think it will be a work for a slightly specialist audience," concedes Armstrong. "But it doesn't feel like two separate conceptions juxtaposed together. Musically, you can feel a line of continuity running through it. Perhaps the whole thing got rather out of hand when Strauss and Hofmannsthal were putting it together. But it does work"n

The original 1912 version of 'Ariadne auf Naxos' is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 7.15pm tonight, Friday and Sunday (booking: 0131-473 2000). Scottish Opera will perform the 1916 version next summer. Nottingham Playhouse will stage 'Le Bourgeois gentilhomme', possibly with Strauss's incidental music, in November

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Sport
Sergio Romero saves Wesley Sneijder's penalty
world cup 2014But after defeating the Dutch, Lionel Messi and Argentina will walk out at the Maracana on Sunday as underdogs against Germany
Sport
Scoreboard at the end of the semi-final World Cup match between Brazil and Germany at The Mineirao Stadium in Belo Horizonte
Sport
'Saddest man in Brazil' takes defeat with good grace, handing replica trophy to German fans
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman and Lauren O'Neil in Jamie Lloyd's Richard III
theatreReview: The monarch's malign magnetism and diabolic effrontery aren’t felt
News
Glamour magazine hosts a yoga class with Yogalosophy author Mandy Ingber on June 10, 2013 in New York City.
newsFather Padraig O'Baoill said the exercise was 'unsavoury' in a weekly parish newsletter
Extras
indybest
News
people'She is unstoppable', says Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris show
Sport
Alexis Sanchez and apparently his barber Carlos Moles in Barcelona today
football
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips
video
Arts and Entertainment
In his own words: Oscar Wilde in 1882
theatreNew play by the Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials - and what they reveal about the man
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m
filmWith US films earning record-breaking amounts at the Chinese box office, Hollywood is more than happy to take its lead from its new-found Asian audience
News
The garage was up for sale in Canning Place Mews for £500,000
newsGarage for sale for £500,000
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Mobile App/IOS Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC)

    £50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Mobile App/IOS...

    Front End Developer-JavaScript, Angular J.S, HTML, CSS, ASP.NET

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front End Deve...

    Associate CXL Consultant

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

    Associate CXL Consultant

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + BONUS + BENEFITS: Harrington Starr: CXL, Triple Po...

    Day In a Page

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil