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

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