The 52nd HK Arts Festival

The Clash Between Highbrow and Lowbrow in Strauss' Classic Opera

Text / Ken Smith

Not everyone will catch the comedy in Ariadne auf Naxos, but the precise playing of the Bayerische Staatsoper will be obvious to all.

As with most of their collaborations, composer Richard Strauss and dramatist Hugo von Hofmannsthal's Ariadne auf Naxos deals with big ideas, from the competition between highbrow and lowbrow diversions, to the very creation and purpose of art itself. This was a heady mix of themes for European audiences at the time, let alone for audiences today in Hong Kong, who finally (after a cancellation in 2020) have a chance to experience the opera at this year's Hong Kong Arts Festival, half a world away and more than a century since its premiere.

The story deals with the clash between an Italian commedia dell'arte troupe and an aspiring young composer. Both parties are to co-operate in simultaneously launching the comic intermezzo Zerbinetta and her Lovers and a new tragic opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, at the home of Vienna's wealthiest man.

"During the First World War, when the version we're performing was first performed, people had a much different sense of comedy and tragedy," says conductor Patrick Lange, who will lead the musical forces of the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera) in Robert Carsen's much-revived 2008 production at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Grand Theatre. "The extremes were literally between light entertainment on one side, and death and transformation on the other."

Comedy, as W.C.Fields used to say, is serious business. It also has a particularly short shelf life, which can present problems for conductors such as Lange who pride themselves on hewing as closely as possible to a composer's original score. "I imagine that not everyone will understand everything," he admits, "but Carsen's production is so precise in bringing music and text together in true music-theatre with an enthusiastic dramatic line. Not all the jokes will be clear, but the big parts of the story—the composer who fights for his rights, the singer who just cares about singing and how she looks, the story of two people dealing with being alone and finding someone—are things anyone can understand."

Although Lange encountered much of Strauss' score as a conducing student, he first led Ariadne auf Naxos in a semi-staged concert in 2013 with the Vienna Philharmonic and Vienna State Opera (who premiered the piece) at the Richard Strauss Festival in Garmisch-Partenkirchen (the town where Strauss lived for most of his adult life). That same year, Lange also made his debut at the Bayerische Staatsoper.

"For an opera house like the Bayerische Staatsoper, Ariadne auf Naxos is a treasure, a crown jewel, because it shows off everything the company can do," he says. "You need, first of all, good singers—16 soloists. You can't do Ariadne auf Naxos without an amazing cast. And the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, for me, is beside its excellency really one of the most amazing in terms of colour—a warm, dark string sound that fits exactly with Strauss' music."

However, in at least one way, Ariadne auf Naxos doesn't fit easily with most of Strauss' work. For a composer best known for writing large and lush orchestrations, this particular opera is scored for a full orchestra of fewer than 40 musicians—smaller than a typical Strauss string section. "In Ariadne auf Naxos, every player must be present and precise. It's a piece of symphonic chamber music, where every single musician is also a soloist. But if everyone just plays soloistically, balance problems quickly arise. You need an exceptional orchestra, like the Bayerisches Staatsorchester, to handle this task well. It's a common dance on the volcano - but definitely the most beautiful one."

Much like a piece of chamber music, he adds, the very quality of an Ariadne auf Naxos performance is largely shaped by individual players in the orchestra pit. "Every production, every cast, every group of musicians is unique," Lange says. "I'm a conductor who tries to listen to musicians to get a feel for how they work, how they react, and also how at some point we can all be a bit spontaneous. I know Strauss, and I especially know Ariadne auf Naxos. But right now, my job is to get to know each of these people and see what they bring to the performance."

Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera)—Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos

Date: 22-24 Feb 2024

Venue: Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/Richard_Strauss%E2%80%99s_Ariadne_auf_Naxos?