For all the familiar talk of operas being “closed” texts, dead to all attempts at smashing their fixity, the repertoire is blessed with a long tradition of revised and alternate versions of certain works. Distance, of course, makes the heart (and ears) less reverent. Performance traditions chained to the revival of works by the dead have long confounded the diehard gospel of the imaginary museum of musical works. We conventionally think of spoken drama as a looser creature, susceptible to all manner of adaptations, dilutions, inversions, or acts of outright destruction. But whither opera by such plagues? Niemals!
Reality, of course, is far different. Creators of dramatic works (here I deny the composer the right of being the sole index of creativity) avidly splice, dice, cinch, pinch, repair, revise, revamp, and renew their own creations for varied purposes. These acts and their authorial traces make the task of those who encounter them later in history all the more challenging or, better still, rewarding. Part of the charm of a work like Verdi’s Don Carlo(s) is the negotiation with its sprawl, which can encourage everyone from a producer to an aspiring home audiophile to splice together a version which suits their own purposes. I am always amazed by those who act as if alterations in our present were permanent acts of annihilation. The principle of the palimpsest means that the traces of “the previous” always remain and affect a dialogue with what has been generated over them. The iterations speak.
Occasionally, there comes a revision that all but trumps its progenitor. Perhaps the most notable operatic example in the twentieth century is Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Ariadne auf Naxos. (I’ll tackle the 1912 original here when its anniversary occurs later this month.) The distinction is fitting, since the entire piece hinges around an act of revision or, rather, adaptation: at the whim of a wealthy patron, an opera seria performance must be combined with a commedia dell’arte piece to ensure that a fireworks display can take place as scheduled. While the resulting chaos makes for excellent comedy, it is never explicit in either the original or revised versions of Ariadne how much the diegetic “performance” witnessed is being effectively “improvised” by the spliced company, though various stagings have taken their own stab at that issue.
Already within months of the premiere of the original version on October 25, 1912 (Ariadne I, for lack of a better shorthand), the creators repeatedly discussed how to salvage their fetching Zwitter, as Strauss deemed it in his memoirs. (Generally translated as “hermaphrodite,” the term “androgyne” is a more suitable and subtle rendering reflecting the hybrid nature of Ariadne I as a combination of an original opera/commedia dell’arte divertissement with a fresh adaptation/translation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.) These exchanges carried on while they each crisscrossed Europe to supervise local premieres while completing their nascent ballet Josephs Legende (1914). What was intended as a stopgap before Die Frau ohne Schatten was taking on a new life of its own.
The main obstacle in the original was the juxtaposition of sung and spoken text. Apart from its aesthetic tension, it made Ariadne I both a casting nightmare and a hard fit for most existing court theatres. The notoriously bitchy Hofmannsthal was left particularly apoplectic that the Munich premiere was not in the rococo Cuvilliés-Theater. (That production, while earning the praise of Arthur Schnitzler, remained a bone of contention for the authors for several months, as were many of the Strauss performances under Bruno Walter in Munich.) There was no objection in principle to a framing device for the diegetic Ariadne opera, but the exact relationship between the two parts remained a lingering issue.
Strauss’s informal suggestion of secco recitatives to replace the spoken portions was warmly received by Hofmannsthal and he set about isolating the backstage Zwischenspiel that he wrote to bridge the Molière adaptation and his own original “opera” text. Writing to Strauss in January 1913, his outline identified the major characters that survive in the Vorspiel of the revised version—the Composer, the various Masters, the principal singers, and the offstage “Maecenas” (Mäzen) who patronizes the opera and commedia troupes. He also revealed his earlier concept (eventually rejected) for a framing device for a young Bohemian heiress with three suitors who bring the opera and commedia troupes to her castle. More details were likely hashed out on their subsequent week-long chauffeured drive across Italy before Hofmannsthal sent Strauss a fully revised text of what would become Ariadne II in June.
Now it was Strauss’s turn to quibble. Calling the new draft outright “disagreeable” (Unsympathische), he was particularly vexed by the character of the Composer, claiming an aversion to depicting artists in drama. (One immediately thinks of Strauss’s own libretto for Intermezzo and cries “Hypocrisy!” but recall that we are never let into the creative side of composer-conductor Robert Storch.) Strauss reiterated his faith in the original version but also his over-immersion with the whole project and need for distance. They both had a greater task ahead of them in completing Josephs Legende. Hofmannsthal’s immediate response to the letter does not survive and their correspondence skips over several months at this point. One would anticipate that the overly sensitive librettist would have been predictably wounded by such criticisms, but no serious rupture seems to have occurred. Indeed, both were united by their contempt for the Dresden success of Wolf-Ferrari’s operatic version of Molière’s comedy Le Médecin malgré lui. Its ecstatic reception in the press prompted many a compliment from composer to the librettist about the precedent they had set in 1912.
It seems that for the moment, the original version would stand. At the start of 1914, a charming revival in Munich prompted Hofmannsthal to state that there would be no revised version at all. The rest of that year and 1915 were occupied principally with Die Frau ohne Schatten, frequently delayed by Hofmannsthal’s diplomatic missions throughout the First World War. Discussions for an eventual premiere of a revised version eventually resumed, however, with a view to either Berlin or Vienna. Strauss resumed composition of the Vorspiel in early April 1916, writing to Hofmannsthal of his desire to compose the role of the Composer for soprano Lola Artôt de Padilla. (Marie Gutheil-Schoder was the intended singer in Vienna.) The librettist denounced this proposal with his usual vehemence, along with Strauss’s more half-hearted suggestions for a bookending scene with the Composer as a comic dénouement.
It was Strauss’s turn again to respond with written rage: “Why do you always get so vicious if we occasionally do not understand each other right away! You truly act as if I have hardly ever understood you!” While he yielded on the question of the ending, Strauss refused to budge on the casting of the Composer. He made an explicit analogy to the case of Mozart premiering Idomeneo at a (relatively) young age as well as their own mutual creation of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier. Hofmannsthal rapidly obliged with a series of expansions and cuts to the existing Vorspiel text and by the end of May, the particell for it and a new “coda” for Zerbinetta at the end of whole work was complete. What followed was a rare occurrence. Hofmannsthal accepted Strauss’s invitation to visit him in Garmisch where he played through the scores of both Ariadne and Die Frau ohne Schatten and the future direction of their partnership was avidly discussed. Both came away confident from the experience, Strauss singling out the Vorspiel as a “new, peculiar path” for their work to come.
As Strauss proceeded with work on act 3 of Die Frau, Hofmannsthal set himself to supervising the Vienna production, fated to be the world premiere of the revised version. The task of staging this premiere fell to Wilhelm von Wymetal, an actor who had become Oberregisseur for the Vienna Court Opera. A determined critic of the reforms of Gustav Mahler and Alfred Roller, Wymetal proved to be, in Hofmannsthal’s words, a “principally hellish troublemaker.” Amid other adjustments, an indisposed Marie Gutheil-Schoder was replaced by understudy Lotte Lehmann in the role of the Composer. The rest is glorious history.
The apart from rehearsals, the weeks leading up to the premiere occasioned frequent outings for Strauss and Hofmannsthal, including a performance of Korngold’s Der Ring des Ploykrates and Violanta. On the day of the Vienna premiere, Strauss motored out to Rodaun with their mutual friend Paul Hellmann to visit where they enjoyed a walk of an hour and a half. Hellmann snapped a priceless photograph of the pair by the Pappelteich near Rodaun. The younger Hofmannsthals scamper off to the right. It serves as a perfect visual metaphor for their partnership: distance, coupled with the mystery of what they actually talked about when they met face to face, which was rare, and the contrast of two seemingly mismatched figures in deep collaboration.
While Ariadne II is overall more concentrated in its dramatic and musical trajectories than its predecessor, I profess it less fulfilling that the unruliness of the original. More could still be made of its “offstage” conceit and frame, as indeed Strauss at one point wanted. Perhaps, however, it is better that the non-diegetic characters are seen briefly in their own right and exist mostly as reflections of their “onstage” personas. That is the genius of Hofmannsthal, after all—the juxtaposition and the play of contrasts. Such makes the lynchpin of the new Vorspiel, the scene between the Composer and Zerbinetta, so important. One senses in it something of the contrast between the two creators. It isn’t something direct or even constant in the concordance between any of them, but rather the struggles of opposites—pragmatism versus idealism, pathos versus pleasantry, the demands of art versus the demands of living. Both these poles would seem to be reconciled in the final tableaux, at least temporarily. The performing characters’ lives continue after the curtain comes down, but for the moment, to paraphrase Zerbinetta’s coda, all is surrendered, and we are silent.