Kathleen Kim as Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera
Ariadne auf Naxos will never be Richard Strauss' most popular comedy (that title is held by Der Rosenkavalier), but this scintillating combination of backstage drama, commedia dell'arte and Greek drama is one of the Met's best productions.
Elijah Moshinsky does not spare the period detail in his recreation of backstage chaos at the private theater of "the richest man in Vienna", where the players in an Italian comic troupe are informed that they will be forced to share the stage with a new opera, a classical drama depicting the plight of the princess Ariadne, abandoned on the desert island of Naxos by Theseus.
When the opera starts, Moshinsky sets the action against a starry map of the heavens that manages to be modern and retro at the same time. It's visually impressive, especially with the three island nymphs singing twelve, fifteen, and twenty feet above the stage in long psychedelic gowns.
Anyway, Ariadne's repeated musings on death are interrupted by the comedians, who interpolate themselves into the action, led by Zerbinetta, a fearless coloratura. The show-stopper in this opera is her aria: "Grossmachtige Prinzessin," an 11-minute workout that makes "Die Hölle Rache" look like a walk in the park. Eventually, the princess is saved from her plight by the Greek god Bacchus, but not before Zerbinetta gets the final word.
Ariadne has been lucky on disc. With three plum female leads, the opera was a popular choice to be recorded in the studio, and the discography offers a panoply of great Strauss singing. Here's two reliable recordings, but there are also fine entries from Georg Solti, Kurt Masur and James Levine.
Philharmonia Orchestra cond. Herbert von Karajan (EMI. 1954)
Ariadne: Elizabeth Schwarzkopf
Zerbinetta: Rita Streich
Composer: Irmgaard Seefried
Bacchus: Rudolf Schock
The first studio recording of Ariadne has the benefit of Karajan's expert conducting and a glittering cast. Although La Schwarzkopf never sang the role of Ariadne onstage, this ranks with her other great '50s Strauss recordings of Capriccio and Der Rosenkavalier.. Mono sound.
Dresden Staatskapelle cond. Giuseppe Sinopoli (Deutsche Grammophon, 2001)
Ariadne: Deborah Voigt
Zerbinetta: Natalie Dessay
Composer: Anne Sofie von Otter
Bacchus: Ben Heppner
The best modern digital recording of this opera features Debbie and Ben in their vocal prime, making the arduously long duet of Ariadne and Bacchus a pleasure instead of a chore. Natalie Dessay flies as Zerbinetta. This was Giuseppe Sinopoli's final recording before the conductor's untimely death at the age of 54, and is a superb example of what he could do with Strauss and singers.