“Ariadne auf Naxos” in Virginia

Ariadne auf Naxos


It’s party time! Vienna’s most lavish aristocrat is throwing the biggest bash of the season. Two groups of performers—a burlesque troupe and an opera company—are set to provide the entertainment, but when dinner runs late, the host orders both groups to perform together, creating a head-on collision between low humor and high art. When saucy flirt Zerbinetta, start of the burlesque troupe, tells Ariadne, the opera’s suicidal, lovelorn star, to ‘get over it’ and find another man, tragic opera suddenly becomes romantic comedy.

Soprano Christina Pier makes her mainstage debut in the demanding dual role of Ariadne and The Diva. Her rival in life and art, Zerbinetta, will be sung by Audrey Luna, whose recent Metropolitan Opera debut as Ariel in The Tempest caused a sensation. Stage virtuoso Sam Helfrich (Orphée, 2012 & A Streetcar Named Desire, 2013) returns to direct another bold production for the Company, while Berlin-based American conductor Garrett Keast makes his debut leading the Virginia Opera Orchestra. 





The richest man in Vienna is throwing a party in his grand home, complete with entertainment, fireworks, and a grand dinner.

The Major-Domo is directing preparations when he is accosted by the Music Master, who has heard a rumor that his pupil’s opera is to be followed by a comedy. When the Major Domo confirms that it is true, the Music Master is incensed, but there is little he can do.

An officer arrives, and rudely pushes aside a footman to get into the dressing room of the lead comedienne, Zerbinetta. The Composer arrives hoping for some more rehearsal with the violinists, but he cannot have them, because they are already playing at the master’s supper. He is struck by a melody, but the Tenor is too busy boxing the Wigmaker’s ears to listen to it.

The Music Master enters talking to an angry Prima Donna just as Zerbinetta emerges with her soldier. The Composer is attracted to Zerbinetta, but then the Music Master informs him of the new order of the program, and the Composer is horrified that his glorious work will be followed by such base comedy.  The Prima Donna and Zerbinetta bicker, and everyone is in turmoil.

Then the Major-Domo returns. There has been another change to the program—as the hour is late, the opera and the comedy must be performed simultaneously.

 After a moment of shock, the performers begin to rally and plan how to make this new combined performance work. The Composer tries to resist, but the Music Master reminds him that his paycheck depends on this performance, and the Composer begins to make cuts. The Prima Dona and Tenor each try to get the other to take a smaller role. The Dancing Master gives Zerbinetta the outline of the story of Ariadne – that she was a woman in love with Theseus, who when his love waned, abandoned her on a deserted island to die. This tale simply won’t do, so Zerbinetta comes up with an alternative – that her troupe perform as a happy band of travelers who happen upon the island….and they’ll figure it out from there.

The Composers seems to be coming around to the new arrangement, until he sees the comedians in full costume, he runs off in despair.

The Opera

Ariadne lies on the rocky shore of her island, inconsolable. She is surrounded by three Nymphs, who bemoan her sad fate. Enter the band of travelers—Zerbinetta, followed by Harlequin, Scaramuccio, Truffaldino, and Brighella. They try and cheer up the sad Ariadne, but she appears not to even hear them, instead vowing to die.

Zerbinetta asks for a moment alone with Ariadne, and tries to talk to her about the mysteries of love, and how though we want each man to be the only and forever, that can be forgotten before the next unforgettable man comes along. Ariadne is going to great lengths to ignore Zerbinetta, and eventually flees back to her cave.

Since Ariadne has left the stage, the comedians are free to cavort on their own—each of the men tries to seduce Zerbinetta, and only Harlequin can triumph.

The nymphs return, announcing that they have sighted a ship, which carries the young Bacchus, who is delighting in his escape from Circe. Ariadne emerges, thinking that death has at last come for her. But when Bacchus sees her he falls in love, and vows to turn her sorrows into joy. The curtain falls on the new couple, but not before Zerbinetta interjects: “When a newer god approaches, we surrender…”

– Claire Marie Blaustein

 About the Composer

Richard Strauss (1864 – 1949) became the foremost post-Wagnerian German composer during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His fame was attributed to his genius as a composer of opera, lieder (or art songs), and symphonic tone poems. Strauss’s musical style was distinctly different from the hyper-Romanticism of his predecessor, Richard Wagner: his musical Expressionism was unique, individual, and possessed an independent musical signature.

Strauss was born and educated in Munich, the son of Franz Strauss, recognized at the time as Germany’s leading French horn virtuoso. From the age of 4, the young Richard devoted all of his energies to music: by age 18 his musical output had already become prodigious, and he had composed more than 140 works that included lieder, chamber, and orchestral pieces. Those early compositions were strongly influenced by his father: they were classical and rigidly formal in structure.

In 1884, at the age of 20, Strauss was commissioned by Hans von Bülow to compose the Suite for 13 Winds for the Meiningen orchestra: the young composer conducted the work’s premiere, which led to his appointment as assistant conductor of the orchestra, and henceforth, he became eminent throughout Europe as both composer and conductor. Strauss proceeded to conduct major orchestras in both Germany and Austria, achieving praise for his interpretations of Mozart and Wagner, which eventually led to his appointment as director of the Royal Court Opera in Berlin (1898-1919) and musical co-director of the Vienna State Opera (1919-1924).

Strauss’s musical compositions fall into three distinct periods. His first period (1880-87) includes a Sonata for Cello and Piano (1883), the Burleske for piano and orchestra (1885), and the symphonic fantasy, Aus Italien (1887), “From Italy,” the latter heavily influenced by the styles of Liszt and Wagner; in Strauss’s early compositions, he expressed his admiration for Wagner in secret so as not to affront the elder Strauss who detested Wagner both musically and personally.

In Strauss’s second creative period (1887-1904), his unique musical style burst forth, in particular, his unprecedented mastery of orchestration. Like Franz Liszt, Strauss abandoned classical forms in order to express his musical ideas in the programmatic symphonic tone poem, an orchestral medium that was totally free from the restrictive forms of classical styles. Strauss perfected the tone poem genre, imbuing it with profound drama that he achieved through the recurrence and interweaving of leitmotif themes, and the exploitation of the expressive power of a huge orchestra, the latter saturated with impassioned melodiousness, descriptive instrumentation, and harmonic richness.

Strauss’s symphonic poems dominated his musical output during his second creative period: Don Juan (1889), Macbeth (1890), Tod und Verklärung, “Death and Transfiguration,” (1890), Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, “Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks,” (1895), Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” (1896), Don Quixote (1897), and Ein Heldenleben, “A Hero’s Life,” (1898), the latter portraying Strauss himself as the hero who was battling his adversarial critics. In 1903, he composed the Symphonia Domestica for a huge orchestra, its programmatic theme described a full day in the Strauss family’s household, a portrait that included duties tending to the children, marital quarrels, and even the intimacy of the bedroom.

Strauss endowed the tone poem form with a new vision and a new language through innovative harmonies and sophisticated instrumentation that vastly expanded the expressive possibilities of the modern symphony orchestra; nevertheless, his textures were always refined and possessed an almost chamber-music delicacy. His Expressionism is magnificently demonstrated in works such as Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks in which instrumental colors depict the 14th century rogue’s adventures amid the sounds of pots and pans, and the hero’s murmurs as he goes to the gallows: in Also Sprach Zarathustra, ostensibly a homage to Nietzsche, the essences of man and nature are brilliantly contrasted through varying tonalities; and in Don Quixote, the music magically captures images of sheep, windmills, and flying horses.

In Strauss’s third period (1904-49), he became the foremost opera composer in the world. Earlier, he had composed his first opera, Guntram (1894), but it was a failure, considered a slavish imitation of Wagner. Likewise, his second opera, Feuersnot (1902), “Fire-Famine,” was a satirical comic opera about small town prudery and hypocrisy that was also poorly received. Strauss was not yet in full command of his operatic powers.

In 1905, Strauss emerged into operatic greatness with Salome, a blasphemous, scandalous, explosive, and unprecedented “shocker” that portrayed female erotic obsessions. Salome immediately became a major triumph, although notable exceptions were in Vienna where the powerful prelates forbade Gustav Mahler to stage it, and at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, where it was canceled because of its scandalous subject matter. Strauss followed with Elektra (1909), his first collaboration with the Austrian poet and dramatist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Elektra, like Salome, became another exploration into female fixations, in the latter, a monomania for revenge.

Both Salome and Elektra were composed for the opera stage as one-act operas; as such, they possess intense and concentrated musical drama. Strauss, a contemporary of Zola, Ibsen, Wilde, and the fin du siècle malaise, demonstrated in these operas his mastery at conveying psychological shock and intense emotion through the power of his music. He was a musical dramatist par excellence – as well as a musical psychologist – who was most comfortable with emotionally complex and supercharged characters: Salome, Elektra, and later, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier (1911). Both Salome and Elektra contain furious explosions of human emotion, pathological passion, perversity, horror, terror, and madness: nevertheless, both operas profoundly reflect the new discoveries in psychiatry that were evolving during the early 20th century.

Hugo von Hofmannsthal eventually exercised a profound influence on Strauss: they collaborated on six operas, all of which considered Strauss’s finest works. After Elektra, Strauss abandoned the violence and psychological realism of “shock” opera and composed Der Rosenkavalier, a “comedy in music” set in 18th century Vienna; a sentimental story evoking tenderness, nostalgia, romance, and humor, that is accented by the sentimentality of its anachronistic waltzes.

With Hofmannsthal, Strauss composed Ariadne auf Naxos (1912, revised 1916), a play-within-a-play that blends commedia dell’arte satire with classical tragedy, but combines the delicacy of Mozart with overtones of Wagnerian heroism: the philosophical Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919),“The Woman without a Shadow,” a symbolic and deeply psychological fairy tale in which the spiritual and real worlds collide; Intermezzo (1924), a thinly disguised Strauss with his wife, Pauline, in a “domestic comedy” involving misunderstandings emanating from a misdirected love letter from an unknown female admirer; Die äegyptische Helena (1928), “The Egyptian Helen,” based on an episode from Homer’s Odyssey; and Strauss’s final collaboration with Hofmannsthal, Arabella (1933), which returns to the ambience of Der Rosenkavalier’s Vienna and amorous intrigues.

After Hofmannsthal’s death, Strauss composed operas with other librettists, though never equaling his earlier successes: Die Schweigsame Frau (1935), “The Silent Woman,” a delightful comedy written to a libretto by Stefan Zweig after Ben Jonson; Friedenstag (1938), “Peace Day”; Daphne (1938); Midas (1939); Die Liebe der Danae, “The Love of Danae” completed in 1940 but not staged until 1952; and his final opera, Capriccio (1942), an opera-about-an-opera described by its authors as “a conversation piece for music” in which the relative importance of opera’s text and music is argued.

Strauss was most fertile in producing songs – lieder – some of the finest after those of Schumann and Brahms: among the most esteemed are Zueignung, “Dedication,” (1882-83) and Morgen, “Morning,” (1893-94). Other works include the ballet Josephslegende, “Legend of Joseph,” (1914), Eine Alpensinfonie, “Alpine Symphony,” (1915), and Vier Letzte Lieder, “Four Last Songs” (1948).

Strauss’s musical style was daring, brilliant, ornate, and ostentatious; a post-Romantic bravura that thoroughly pleased audiences during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although the successes of Salome and Elektra earned him accolades as an avant-garde composer, after Der Rosenkavalier, he became more conservative and classical, unaffected by experiments in serial and atonal music that were dominating his contemporary musical world. The greater part of his career – the 38 years following Der Rosenkavalier – was spent polishing his unique style, striving for a perfect fusion between the distinctive refinement and delicacy of Mozart, and the profound poetic and dramatic expressiveness of the Romantics.

Strauss lived in Germany during the Nazi period: he was neither interested nor skilled in politics, and none of his operas – before or after the Nazis – contains a political subtext or underlying ideological message. In 1933, after the National Socialists came into power, Strauss at first closely identified closely with the new regime, unwittingly allowing himself to be used by them; from 1933 to 1935, he served as president of the Reichsmusikkammer, the state’s music bureau. However, very soon thereafter, he came into conflict with government officials.

After Hofmannsthal’s death in 1929, Strauss collaborated with the Jewish dramatist Stefan Zweig on the lighthearted comedy, Die Schweigsame Frau, “The Silent Woman,” a relationship that became unacceptable and particularly embarrassing, if not scandalous to the Nazis. The Nazis eliminated Zweig’s name as the librettist, citing the story as an adaptation “From the English of Ben Johnson.” In an heroic protest and gesture of defiance, Strauss restored Zweig’s name to the libretto with his own hand, nevertheless, in 1935, after 4 performances, Die Schweigsame Frau was banned: Strauss was forced to resign as president of the Reichsmusikkammer, and was compelled to work with a non-Jewish librettist, Joseph Gregor.

Above all else, Strauss was a family man who used every shred of his influence as Germany’s greatest living composer to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law, Alice Grab, and his two grandchildren: Strauss seemingly collaborated with the Nazis by making an “arrangement”; he would not speak out against them, but they in turn, would leave his daughter-in-law and his two grandchildren alone.

Strauss was supposedly apolitical, claiming that art supersedes politics. He tried to ignore his perception of the Nazi’s disgrace to German honor, but he did become the compliant artist who quickly usurped the music posts of emigrating Jewish artists such as Bruno Walter. In 1933, after Toscanini protested and withdrew from a Parsifal performance at Bayreuth, he later met Strauss in Milan and greeted him with a reproachful remark: “As a musician I take my hat off to you. As a man I put it on again.” Nevertheless, Toscanini was not living in Germany, nor was he obliged to protect a Jewish daughter-in-law or Jewish grandchildren.

Life under the Nazis could not have been pleasant for Strauss: he was tolerated, but treated with contempt; at one point, an hysterical propaganda minister, Goebbels, forced him to relinquish his prized Garmisch villa and make it available for bomb victims. Strauss spent part of World War II in Vienna and in Switzerland where he was out of the limelight. After the war, an allied commission investigated him, and he was exonerated of any collaboration with the Nazis.

Strauss was no hero, nor was he a martyr. In historical hindsight, it would be presumptuous to stand in judgment of Strauss for his political silence. Strauss was another suffering artist, struggling for survival in a world that went mad: nevertheless, his less than heroic opposition to the Third Reich continues to shade perceptions of his works. In 1949, Strauss returned to Garmisch where he died three months after his 85th birthday.


Ariadne • Christina Pier
Bacchus • Robert Chafin
Zerbinetta • Audrey Luna
Composer • Stephanie Lauricella
Music Teacher • Jake Gardner
Dancing Master • Edwin Vega
Scaramuccio • Ryan Connelly
Harlekin • Christopher Burchett
Brighella • David Blalock
Truffaldin • Matthew Scollin
Najade • Amanda Opuszynski
Dryade • Courtney Miller
Echo • Jessica Julin
Major Domo • Mike Timoney
Wig Maker • Hunter Enoch
Lackey • Adrian Smith
Officer • Ben Kwak


Conductor • Garrett Keast 
Director • Sam Helfrich
Set Designer • Andrew Lieberman
Costume Designer • Nancy Leary 
Lighting Designer • Aaron Black 
Wig and Makeup Designer • James McGough   

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