The 1916 version of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos with which we are familiar today is a drastic revision. The original, in one act and without a Prologue, was presented four years earlier in Stuttgart, and was an odd, doomed-from-the-start hybrid. Hugo von Hofmannsthal had translated Moliere's Le bourgeois gentilhomme and reduced it to two acts, and Strauss had composed incidental music, including an overture and music heralding the entrance of the Dancing Master. The evening's third act was to be the opera in a form somewhat as we know it today. The event was a flop; opera lovers resented having to sit through a two-act play before hearing a work by Strauss, and those who had come to see the Molière were bored by the opera. TheRead more amalgam was presented in a few other cities but it never caught on; one of the few champions of the work was Thomas Beecham, who led it in 1913 and again in 1950.
Today the prospect of sitting through the Molière with Strauss' incidental music and then hearing the 90-minute opera seems outrageous for many reasons, not least because we'd miss the remarkable Prologue, composed for 1916 and featuring some of Strauss' greatest music and one of his most vivid characters, the Composer. But opportunities to hear the original opera are rare: an old "private" recording under Beecham exists but is hard to find, and a 1998 release on Virgin led by Kent Nagano, including all of Strauss' incidental music, seems to be presently unavailable.
And so this video release is very valuable indeed. It documents a concert performance of the United States premiere of the original version, from Boston's Symphony Hall on January 7, 1969, omitting Le bourgeois gentilhomme altogether. Fans of the opera will note many small differences, but the major alterations concern the role of Zerbinetta, outrageously difficult in the revised version but even moreso in the original. Strauss lowered the almost-unsingable aria from E to D and eliminated almost 80 bars of music for 1916, and he cut another, briefer aria for her which she sings moments before Bacchus enters. He also altered the opera's ending: Here Zerbinetta, the clowns, and M. Jourdain (the evening's host in the original--a speaking part) come back at the very end, creating a completely different mood, more knowing than lofty.
The cast here is almost uniformly excellent. Most opera fans will focus on the Zerbinetta of Beverly Sills, and indeed, it's quite an achievement. In 1969 there was little her voice couldn't do: you marvel at her immaculate coloratura, her spot-on intonation, the seemingly endless, easily produced roulades all the way up to high-F. She also caresses the text when needed, her soft singing is nicely flirtatious, and she entirely "gets" the role's ironies. Only momentarily does she seem to tire, about two-thirds of the way through the 13-minute aria, but she recovers quickly. The aristocratic, undervalued Claire Watson (a protégée of Klemperer's and Solti's) sings Ariadne with warmth, understanding, and pure tone, easily taking in the role's wide vocal range and opera seria attitudes. Robert Nagy sang hundreds of small roles at the Met for years and years; his voice was gigantic, reliable, and ugly. He was the loudest Parpignol I ever heard, and one season filled in for an ailing Jon Vickers as both Peter Grimes and Otello, enraging many in the audience while others marveled at his stamina and professionalism. His Bacchus is stalwart and he tries to warm up his tone occasionally, but the voice's basic quality remains. Baritone John Reardon, a fine, also undervalued singer, gets every nuance out of Harlequin's music, while James Billings' Scaramuccio is colorful.
The casting of Najade, Dryade, and Echo is all luxury: Eunice Alberts sings with a rich alto; Benita Valente uses her silvery tone exquisitely; and Carole Bogard's control of dynamics is a treat. Erich Leinsdorf leads a clean, un-melodramatic, no-nonsense performance, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at its best. The opera-in-concert is filmed honestly and with no attempts to dramatize the work. But given the complexities of Strauss' score, it's a pleasure to watch individual instrumentalists as well as the vocal interaction among singers--who's singing what in the Najade, Dryade, and Echo scenes, for instance.
The DVD is in color and has been digitally remastered. Once I heard a bit of pre-echo but otherwise the sound is very good mono. Subtitles are in English, French, German, and Italian. It's a veritable time capsule of fashion and hair-dos, by the way--the women seem to be having a big-hair contest, and the "Empire" look in gowns was all the rage (let's face it, the style only looked good on Maria Callas as Tosca). The men are in pastel sports-coats and trousers, looking vaguely like an exploded candy shop. This is a musical treasure, one-of-a-kind.
--Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Ariadne auf Naxos, Op. 60by Richard Strauss Performer:
Claire Watson (Soprano),
Beverly Sills (Soprano),
John Reardon (Baritone)
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1911/1916; Germany
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
An excellent introduction to ZerbinettaJuly 11, 2013By M. Rollins (Oakland, CA)See All My Reviews"I do wish this wasn't just a concert performance but it is a joy to listen to. Beverly Sills is the jolliest, most salacious Zerbinetta and Claire Watson is marvelous. As long as you accept the recording quality is the best to be had from the 60's you'll have an enjoyable experience."Report Abuse