It is 100 years since the disastrous premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos. The third collaboration between Richard Strauss and his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, which attempted to pair an adaptation of Molière’s play Le bourgeois gentilhomme with a new opera based on the Ariadne myth, was considered by its first night audience to be convoluted and overly long.
The piece only found success after the play was dropped in favour of a shorter operatic prelude, so Sven-Eric Bechtolf’s plan to restore the original for this year’s Salzburg Festival seemed brave – and his decision to add yet another layer to the narrative, quite reckless.
Inspiration came from the real-life drama that played out during the opera’s gestation: the flourishing friendship between Hofmannsthal and the recently widowed Ottonie von Degenfeld-Schonburg. Here Bechtolf imagines them into the fictional narrative: the couple blend into the action on stage as participants and observers, introducing the spoken comedy and then responding to the opera as Ariadne’s journey from grief to new love prompts Ottonie’s own awakening.
The result is sublime, if occasionally ridiculous, and it won over this critic. Cornelius Obonya plays Molière’s foolish Monsieur Jourdain with panache and the drama is enlivened by dance interludes that range from tight ballet movement to rowdy slapstick. Meanwhile, Rolf Glittenberg’s elegant set designs provide a steadying backdrop for each stage of the play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play.
It is testament to Emily Magee’s performance as Ariadne that the opera’s thick layers of artifice appear to melt away during her big moments, but she is ultimately upstaged by Jonas Kaufmann – virile, brooding and in magnificent voice – as Bacchus. And the first night audience went wild for Elena Mosuc’s sparkling Zerbinetta. Daniel Harding (replacing Riccardo Chailly) conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in an account that, from the sparser sections of instrumentation through to the opera’s great climax, is at once taut and exuberant.
On the previous evening, the Haus für Mozart played host to a more sober but no less rewarding programme of music from Claudio Abbado and his Orchestra Mozart Bologna. The loose theme was early and late styles, with Mozart’s Waisenhaus Mass in C minor, written when the composer was just 12 years old, followed by Schubert’s final Mass in E flat major. Neither work is widely known – the Mozart mass was subsequently eclipsed by his Great Mass in the same key, and the Schubert is a strange and somewhat uneven work – so this was a rare opportunity to hear them performed.
In a fine line-up of soloists, Rachel Harnisch and Javier Camarena left the best impression, and it is always a treat to hear Sara Mingardo’s rich and resonant alto – though her contribution was limited. The Arnold Schoenberg Choir and the Orchestra Mozart Bologna gave a highly polished performance under Abbado’s baton: this was the ensemble’s Salzburg Festival debut and no doubt they will return.