Anna Picard explores the myth of Ariadne, opera’s first abandoned woman, in music by Monteverdi, Birtwistle, Haydn and Strauss
Only a fragment of L’Arianna, Claudio Monteverdi’s second opera, remains. In a little over seven minutes of brooding, circling music, a heart is torn open, picked over obsessively, and torn again. Monteverdi reworked what is now known as the Lamento d’Arianna several times, publishing it as as a five part madrigal, an aria, and, with new lyrics, as the solo motet, Lamento della Madonna. In the first decades of opera, the line between erotic and religious longing was vanishingly slight.
Composed in 1608 for the singer Caterina Martinelli but premiered by Virginia Ramponi-Andreini, aka ‘La Florinda’, after Martinelli’s death from smallpox, ‘Lasciatemi morire’ (leave me to die) opens with a single, desolate bass note. The singer enters an octave higher, then moves one semitone upwards on her second syllable, forcing the bass line to retreat downwards.
The combination of that sudden, pitiless dissonance, the knifeblade swish of the consonants that introduce it, and the agency of a female voice pressing the argument forwards and dominating the bass line, is striking. Without preamble, we understand immediately the anguish and pride of Ariadne, daughter of Minos. The second iteration, again piercingly chromatic, confirms her status.
A marriage of convenience?
In opera, and in the concert hall, Naxos tends to be where we meet Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus and wishing for death, though not, as Tim Ashley, biographer of Richard Strauss, points out, wishing to kill herself. Of the major musical retellings of her myth, only Harrison Birtwistle’s bruising and bloodied 2008 opera, The Minotaur, gives us an impression of Ariadne’s first encounter with Theseus, and the motivation for her assistance in his slaughter of her monstrous half-brother, the Minotaur.
Birtwistle’s Ariadne is traumatised by the violence of ritual sacrifice in the labyrinth, and is a close cousin to Strauss’s Elektra in her hatred of her mother, Pasiphae, whose deviant lust she recounts in duet with a snarling alto saxophone. The attraction between her and Theseus appears to be one of convenience – each offers the other a way out of Crete.
In Monteverdi’s Lamento d’Arianna, rage, grief and desire are plucked from the air, closely cradled and then cast away. The vocal compass is narrow and in inverse proportion to the expressive compass. There is space to croon, to berate, to gasp and sob, and an expectation that the performer would improvise embellishments.
Though Ottavio Rinuccini’s text conveys the wealth and power to which Ariadne is accustomed, it concludes with a line that links her experience of romantic betrayal to that of everyone who has suffered similar pain: ‘Così va chi tropp’ama, e troppo crede’ (So it goes for those who love too much and trust too much).
Here, then, is a link to baroque opera’s later humiliated heroines, be they queens, empresses or sorceresses, sympathetic or, more often, antipathethic. Heartbreak is the great leveller, as Monteverdi’s Ottavia, Cavalli’s Medea, Purcell’s Dido and Handel’s Alcina discover in turn.
Emotional volatility, and a degree of self-dramatisation that almost certainly predates her ill-fated hook-up with Theseus, is hard-wired in all versions of Ariadne. We can see it in Ovid’s Heroides, one of the main sources of Rinuccini’s libretto, as Ariadne writes to Theseus, bewailing the state of her hair and her garments, returning to a bed that was once warm from her lover’s body, and fantasising a lonely and terrible death.
We can also hear this in the more stately sequence of recitatives and arias that form Haydn’s 1790 cantata for voice and fortepiano, Arianna a Naxos. Performed by the castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti in London in 1791, with the composer at the keyboard, this beautiful work begins with Ariadne waking to a rosy dawn, unaware of Theseus’s departure, and ends with a furious denunciation of him as ‘barbaro ed infedel’ (barbarous and unfaithful).
Ariadne in love
It is interesting to consider that L’Arianna was composed to celebrate the wedding of the 22 year old Francesco Gonzaga to Margaret of Savoy. The libretto of Monteverdi’s lost opera, like Strauss’s opera-within-an-opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, concludes with the arrival of Bacchus, sung by the tenor Francesco Rasi, who had created the title role in L’Orfeo in Mantua a year earlier.
Where L’Orfeo was performed in the ducal palace, L’Arianna was premiered in a temporary theatre that was supposed to accommodate an audience of 6,000 and a stage crew of 300. Even allowing for the dynastic significance of this marriage, the figures seem inflated, to say the least. Perhaps more reliable, given what we know of Monteverdi’s love music from the prelapsarian sweetness of Orfeo’s ‘Rosa del ciel’ to the shimmering eroticism of Poppea’s ‘Signor, deh non partire’, is Marco Da Gagliano’s recollection that the audience was in tears from the beauty of Rasi’s singing.
Comfort and company
It is typical of Strauss, the least neurotic of composers, and of his librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, that the absurdity of Ariadne’s ongoing distress at losing a man so far beneath her is treated with such tenderness and sympathy. Even at her most self-indulgent, Ariadne’s music, scored for a chamber orchestra of strings, woodwind, brass, piano, celesta and harmonium, is exquisite.
Deaf to the cooing of the Naiad, Dryad and Echo, her only company on Naxos until Zerbinetta’s troupe disrupts the opera, Ariadne gorges obsessively on her grief. Where Wagner’s doomed lovers Tristan and Isolde rapturously fetishise the word “und”, Ariadne dispenses with it altogether. (A pleasing operatic ‘in joke’ from Hofmannsthal.) In the voluptuous sadness of ‘Ein Schönes war’ she mourns the loss of “Theseus-Ariadne”. In losing Theseus, she has lost herself.
Lost and found
Arlecchino’s delicious song ‘Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen’, promises that Ariadne will love, and likely suffer, again. Such is the human condition. In Ariadne’s second aria, ‘Es gibt ein Reich’, she prepares herself for death as though for a wedding night. (Hence the Havishamesque banquet table in Antony McDonald’s 2018 production for Opera Holland Park and Scottish Opera.)
Zerbinetta’s sparkling woman-to-woman talk, ‘Großmächtige Prinzessin’, becomes a confession of multiple past affairs, with Pagliaccio, Mezzetino, Cavicchio, Burratino and Pasquariello, the thrill of enchantment and the itch of boredom, with no shame. Only when Bacchus arrives, similarly scalded by his affair with Circe, does Ariadne forget Theseus. From the heroic scale of their love music to Zerbinetta’s final interjection, we deduce a happy ending: one not tinged with regret, like Der Rosenkavalier, but one in which every broken heart, high or low, might be mended.
Monteverdi: Véronique Gens, Emmanuelle Haïm, Le Concert d’Astrée (Virgin Classics)
Haydn: Bernarda Fink, Roger Vignoles (Hyperion)
Strauss: Jessye Norman, Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, Kurt Masur (Decca)
Birtwistle (DVD): Christine Rice, Antonio Pappano, Orchestra of the Royal Opera (Opus Arte)
Anna Picard is Opera Holland Park’s Research and Repertoire consultant. She has written for The Times and Times Literary Supplement, and is a regular contributor to BBC Radio Three’s Record Review programme.