A recent spate of comments about sopranos vs. mezzos as the Composer in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos prompted me for this week’s “Trove Thursday” to dig out a live broadcast of the opera’s prologue featuring Julia Varady, a favorite soprano in a role she sang only rarely. 

Many will know the knotty genesis of Ariadne: it premiered in 1912 as the conclusion of a long entertainment that began with Hugo von Hofmannstahl’s adaptation of Molière’s Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. The unwieldy enterprise flopped and eventually Strauss and Hofmannstahl set about trying to salvage the work.

Versions of this earlier incarnation are still performed occasionally; perhaps the most celebrated was a concert of just the opera (preserved on DVD) by the Boston Symphony conducted by Erich Leinsdorf starring an all-American trio: the luminous Claire Watson and Robert Nagy as Ariadne and Bacchus with Beverly Sills giving her best shot at Zerbinetta’s longer, higher aria.

It was also staged to mark the centenary of its premiere at the 2012 Salzburg Festival with Emily Magee, Jonas Kaufmann and Elena Mosuc.

The 1916 revision though is what we inevitably hear today.

The biggest change was the addition of a forty-minute prologue focusing on a young composer whose opera is about to be invaded by a band of commedia dell’arte actors. As he did in Der Rosenkavalier several years earlier, Strauss composed this part as a trouser role, originally to be premiered at the Vienna Staatsoper by Marie Gutheil-Schoder. However, she fell ill before the final rehearsal and her understudy, the 28-year-old Lotte Lehmann, was awarded the opening night and became the talk of the town.

My first acquaintance with the latter-Ariadne featured a soprano as the Composer—Sena Jurinac on the RCA recording. Even as I began to hear other versions, she remained my touchstone until I discovered Irmgard Seefried. I had always avoided the Herbert von Karajan LPs due to my aversion to its leading lady. But eventually I came across the live 1944 performance conducted by Karl Böhm with Maria Reining Max Lorenz and and was transported by Seefried’s shining and ecstatic portrayal.

I’m not entirely sure when mezzos came to be expected in the role but Christa Ludwig sang the Composer in the 50s and Kerstin Meyer was awarded the Met premiere in 1963. Beginning in the mid-60s and continuing for nearly twenty years, Tatiana Troyanos was regarded as its leading exponent and she recorded it twice and appeared on telecasts from Aix-en-Provence and the Met. However I found her lush mezzo with its wonderfully free top too dark and heavy for the Composer.

Although its first season of Ariadne there featured Elisabeth Söderström in two performances as the Composer, the Met has followed the trend and generally cast mezzos. In addition to Troyanos, there has been among others Maria Ewing, Susanne Mentzer, Sarah Connolly, the late Kristine Jepson (marvelous at Christine Brewer’s debut), Susan Graham and Joyce DiDonato, the last sadly an unfortunate choice —strained, strident and wildly sharp.

Other than Evelyn Lear’s 1970 Composers (which I understand were not a success), the most fascinating Met soprano Composer must be Teresa Stratas who took the role there just eight times stretching over 31 years from 1963 to 1994. I missed those final ones but I understand they were dramatically compelling if vocally reduced and hard-pressed. There’s reportedly a 1967 Munich Ariadne broadcast with Stratas floating around that I’d love to hear.

I was surprised to discover on a website devoted to Varady that she sang onstage just two Strauss roles—the Composer and Arabella. She did, of course, also record the Kaiserin in Die Frau ohne Schatten with Georg Solti, Feuersnot and a marvelous collection (now out of print) on Orfeo of excerpts from Salome, Capriccio and Die Liebe der Danae. That CD also included Ariadne’s monologue, but she dropped out of an announced new production in Munich in which she would have debuted the title role.

I used to have a copy of this complete performance but the opera has vanished into mp3-heaven like so many other things. This surviving prologue, conducted by her longtime Munich collaborator Wolfgang Sawallisch, finds Varady in flaming, volatile form if not the last word in verbal clarity and specificity, often her weak point. Those who know her Composer only from the lackluster Kurt Masur recording on Philips done 12 years after this RAI broadcast and paired with the charmless Edita Gruberovà may discover here a fresher, livelier portrayal.

R. Strauss: Ariadne auf Naxos (Prologue only)
Orchestra Sinfonica RAI di Roma
18 March 1976

Komponist – Julia Varady
Zerbinetta – Patricia Wise
Prima Donna – Johanna Meier
Major-domo- Klaus Bertram
Music Master – Roland Hermann
Tenor – James King
Dancing Master/Brighella – Matti Juani
Arlecchino Wolfgang Schone
Scaramuccia – Peter Hage
Truffaldino – Boris Carmeli

Conductor – Wolfgang Sawallisch

To download Ariadne’s Prologue, just click on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the audio player above and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

In addition, more than 70 other “Trove Thursday” podcasts (including Varady’s Cio-Cio-San) are available from iTunes or via any RSS reader.