Jonathan Darlington, the Paris-based music director of the Vancouver Opera and the hands-down favourite to win any Richard Gere look-alike contest he might care to enter, is back in town, fresh from engagements in Poland and Germany, to conduct the VO's upcoming production of Ariadne auf Naxos (March 3, 6, 8, and 10). During a break at the Holy Rosary Cathedral Hall, the company's rehearsal space, he took a few minutes to sit down in an austere room usually reserved for some stern Catholic practice and talk about this collaboration between composer Richard Strauss and librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal. First staged in 1912, and then revised and remounted for the 1916 version that's been the standard ever since, Ariadne tells the story of a collision between high art and low. The richest man in Vienna engages both an opera company and a commedia dell'arte troupe to come to his house and imposes on their performances a condition of simultaneity.
Then, in the words of Russian-American composer and music critic Nicolas Slonimsky, “a philosophical, methodological, and aesthetical imbroglio ensues.” It's a lushly scored, brainy romp, replete with classical references, and a bit of swotting up in advance wouldn't be time ill spent.
“I saw it for the first time in London, long ago,” says Darlington when asked about his history with the work, “and I remember that I was rather baffled by it. I hadn't done my homework, and I think you need to if you want to get the point of the piece, which is that in order to be able to live and develop as a person, one has to be prepared to forget and forgive a great many things in oneself. Ariadne is in love with death. Theseus has left her, and all she wants to do is die. Along comes Bacchus, whom she thinks is death to begin with, and through his love for her, Ariadne can take on this metamorphosis and become somebody who has to live. The point is that this is something we deal with every day of our lives: how do we get rid of all that cumbersome baggage and think in a different and original way about our situations?”
Of course, whatever preparation the audience might do for the event pales beside that required of the cast and orchestra.
Strauss wasn't inclined to write for sissies or slackers. No one, says Darlington, can coast in Ariadne, which is a chamber opera and one of the most transparent works in the repertoire. There's nowhere to run for cover.
“It's virtuosic in the extreme, for everyone concerned: the singers, the players, and the conductor. Strauss makes a 35-piece orchestra sound like 135. And the use of the language is unbelievable. It goes so closely with the music that without a good grasp of German, of its inflections, you can't really do the piece.”
Strauss wrote beautifully and demandingly for women's voices. He was married to Pauline de Ahna, a soprano and general's daughter about whom few people had a kind word to say. A control freak of the first water, she once caused a near international incident by saying too loudly, in Paris, that the only way to deal with the French was with fixed bayonets. Do all Strauss heroines, who are made to work really, really hard, pay the price of that fraught relationship? Perhaps. This production will have the considerable bench strength of the Winnipeg-based coloratura Tracy Dahl as Zerbinetta, as well as Beth Clayton as the Composer and Lori Phillips as Ariadne. (Anyone wanting a foretaste of the exertions these women are in for can dally with YouTube, where there are many postings of such superstars as Natalie Dessay, Kathleen Battle, and Jessye Norman going through their Ariadne paces.)
In 1949, two months before his death at the age of 85 and dogged by the controversy that surrounded his easy relationship with the Nazi party, Richard Strauss travelled to Munich to attend a series of commemorative concerts given in his honour. The Bavarian authorities planned to stage a new production of one of his works. When asked which he wanted to see, he didn't name Salome or Elektra or Der Rosenkavalier, the masterworks that made his name and fortune in the early years of the century. Rather, he settled on Ariadne (in its original 1912 edition, in fact) as the centrepiece of the celebration. History tells us he was very pleased with what he heard, and was perhaps also pleased to be reminded, in the late autumn of his life, of its deeper message: what Jonathan Darlington identifies as “the possibility of having a really transformative experience every minute that we live”. Of course, as any therapist will aver, you have to want to be transformed. Those who don't, or who are happy with the status quo, can content themselves with Ariadne's gorgeous wash of sound—it ought to be plenty.