St Petersburg, Mariinsky II

Ariadne auf Naxos


opera by Richard Strauss

Performed in German (the performance will have synchronised Russian supertitle)



Valery Gergiev

Ariadne: Zhanna Dombrovskaya
Zerbinetta: Aigul Khismatullina
The Composer: Elena Gorlo
Bacchus: Mikhail Vekua
The Major Domo (spoken role): Alexander Oleshko

World premiere: 25 October 1912, Staatsoper Stuttgart (first version); 4 October 1916, Vienna State Opera (second version)
Premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre: 2 February 2004
Premiere of this production: 27 June 2024

Running time 2 hours 35 minutes
The performance has one interval

Age category 16+


Music by Richard Strauss
Libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal

Musical Director: Valery Gergiev
Stage Director: Sergei Novikov
Set and Costume Designer: Sergei Novikov
Lighting Designer: Ruslan Mayorov
Video Designer: Dmitry Ivanchenko
Choreographer: Maxim Nedolechko
Musical Preparation: Oxana Klevtsova


In the mansion of a wealthy yet uneducated magnate, akin to Molière’s Monsieur Jourdain, the master of the house suddenly aspired to be seen as a patron of the arts and hired various instructors. Recognising their employer’s newfound enthusiasm for the fine arts, they seized the opportunity to earn extra money. The music teacher suggested featuring the opera Ariadne – the first composition of his young protégé – for the evening’s cultural entertainment. Not to be outdone, the dance master convinced the master to add a comedic dance of masks titled The Unfaithful Zerbinetta to the programme.
When the music teacher discovered the dance master’s cunning ploy, he furiously confronted the majordomo, the real power behind the household operations. The majordomo, unyielding, declared that the master’s word was law: both the opera and the comedy of masks would proceed. The music teacher threatened to resort to physical measures, but the timely arrival of servants diffused the confrontation, leaving the majordomo to exit, leaving the music teacher in utter dismay.
As the time for the performance neared, the casts of both productions collided. The young composer, smitten with Zerbinetta, was thrown into despair when he learned that his solemn opera would be followed by frivolous theatricals. The prima donna clashed with the comedic Zerbinetta, who deftly managed the confrontation with wit. Unexpectedly, the majordomo returned with a twist: the master now insisted the opera and comedy be performed simultaneously, not sequentially – a vengeful decree from the majordomo.
Initially confounded, both troupes hesitated. However, the dance master quickly recovered, proposing they interweave the comedic acts within the opera. Zerbinetta, always portraying herself, was a natural at improvisational theatre. The music teacher reluctantly agreed, lured by the promise of fifty ducats. Convincing the composer to acquiesce to this brazen intrusion into his musical creation became the new challenge.
As Zerbinetta narrated the plot of the opera, she opined that Ariadne, supposedly desolate after Theseus’ departure, was merely biding her time, awaiting a new lover. This reductionist takes on the plot incensed the composer. Yet, in his heated exchange with Zerbinetta, he uncovered a woman of deep sensitivity hidden beneath her façade of fleeting romances – a woman longing for true and steadfast love, leading him to imagine himself as her sole beloved.
With the performance imminent the artists were instructed to ready themselves. Adhering to the revised score, the composer humorously adorned the music teacher with a bull’s head, transforming him into the Minotaur, while he assumed the role of Theseus, complete with a theatrical sword. Due to time constraints, the legendary battle between Theseus and the Minotaur was abbreviated to a mere shadow play.
As the curtain of the home theatre lifted, Theseus triumphed over the Minotaur and, guided by Ariadne’s thread, navigated his way out of the labyrinth. Ariadne rewarded the hero with a laurel of victory, and the lovers set sail for the idyllic isle of Naxos. There, they drifted into a blissful slumber, united in their love. However, during a dream the nymphs – Naiad, Dryad and Echo – visited Theseus to relay the divine command: he must leave Naxos, for Ariadne was destined for another. Reluctantly, Theseus raised the sails and departed, leaving his beloved asleep, without a farewell.

The cultural programme of a grand evening unfolds. On the stage of the home theatre – a desolate island – unfolds the opera Ariadne by a young composer. The prima donna, portraying Ariadne, dramatically feigns deep despair and longing, abandoned by her lover for days on end. The nymphs show their sympathy towards her. Suddenly, Harlequin appears, a twist introduced by the wealthy host; Zerbinetta’s quartet of masks intervenes directly into the operatic action, leaving the prima donna stunned.
In a nod to fairy-tale traditions, Harlequin attempts to revive the princess with a kiss, but the prima donna remains motionless. Then Zerbinetta leads the entire male quartet onto the stage. The masks begin to dance around the statuesque singer, constructing a grotto around her. When Zerbinetta herself steps onto the stage, it’s simply too much for the prima donna. Realising she’s no longer the focus of the audience, she descends from the stage and dramatically retreats to her dressing room. Zerbinetta, left to salvage the situation, performs an aria that wins clear success with the audience, much to the prima donna’s astonishment. The diva is ready to return and continue the performance, but Zerbinetta isn’t quick to relinquish the stage, initiating a playful game with the masks. She hands each of the four friends a thread of Ariadne and sends them into an imaginary labyrinth, while she herself secludes with the young composer, growing increasingly fond of him.
The masks discover and then dismantle Ariadne’s grotto, but where has she vanished? Truffaldino, Scaramouche and Brighella search for the prima donna, bumping into each other, while only Harlequin, observing Zerbinetta flirting with the composer, is consumed with jealousy. To sabotage the performance, he decides to sever the rope about to hoist the tenor – cast as Bacchus – who is supposed to descend onto the island from above.
Backstage, the tenor prepares for his grand entrance as the youthful god. The nymphs recount the birth of Bacchus and his first feat – the conquest of Circe’s enchantments. However, at the crucial moment nothing happens on stage: the tenor is missing. The nymphs perform the introduction to Bacchus’s arrival again but still, nothing. Behind the scenes more and more men struggle to manually hoist the tenor to enact his “divine descent”. Finally, enough strength is gathered, and Bacchus’ entrance is ready.
Per the composer’s concept, Ariadne initially mistakes him for Theseus and then for Hermes – the messenger of death. The flustered tenor struggles to recall the young author’s text, forcing the prima donna to constantly cue him. At last, their confrontation resolves: the kiss does not lead to death, nevertheless destiny has it that Ariadne is not to die of heartache but to become the spouse of Bacchus, transforming from a mortal woman into a goddess. Above Bacchus and Ariadne, a canopy unfurls, while Zerbinetta repeats to the composer her creed: “When a new god arrives, we women surrender to him without words.”
The curtain of the home theatre falls, and all performers await the verdict: triumph or failure? The music in the orchestra concludes, the stunned audience falls silent, and only at the last chord does a murmur of distant applause hint to the performers of their success. Sergey Novikov, stage director

Ariadne auf Naxos is an evolutionary creation that has undergone several transformations. Initially conceived as a charming musical homage to director Max Reinhardt, who brilliantly staged the previous opera by Strauss and Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier, it initially served as the finale in a lengthy dramatic piece before returning to a purely musical format, transforming into an opera with a prologue. In its original version Ariadne replaced a Turkish divertissement in a revised comedy by Molière, Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. The theatrical experiment was met with lukewarm reception from the audience, but Richard Strauss remained hopeful until his last days that spectators would eventually appreciate the original idea of an opera-drama hybrid. “I am far more confident about the future of our Ariadne than its present,” the composer wrote to his collaborator, asking him not to reveal that they were working on a second edition of the opera, so theatres would not refuse to stage the existing one. However, for most theatres, the first Ariadne was simply too challenging as it required two high-calibre troupes: an opera and a drama company. Even today audiences generally prefer either to attend a theatre of comedy or an opera, not a blend of both.
Originally, the performance was defined as “a play by Hugo von Hofmannsthal with music by Richard Strauss”. Now we know it as Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss with a libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal. This is not just a swapping of components; these two formulations result in entirely different entities.
Ariadne auf Naxos is indeed a true opera, but in its final form it encapsulates the entire history of its authors’ conceptual transformations. Hofmannsthal once criticised Strauss for his inclination towards lighter genres, claiming that “the vulgar in him rises like groundwater”, yet he insisted that the comedic heroine Zerbinetta should not disappear towards the end but should sing a few phrases at the curtain. Strauss fulfilled this request by giving Zerbinetta a whispered vocal line, unwilling to disrupt the elevated atmosphere of the final duet between the main characters – Ariadne and Bacchus. Initially skeptical about the concept of this apotheotic duet, Strauss later became enthralled, motivated less by the text and more by his librettist’s explanations.
These and other creative dilemmas require a coherent justification on stage. This is the primary challenge for directors, as the sparkling, enchanting and captivating music of the brilliant composer contrasts with the sometimes absurdist words of the eminent writer. Our goal is to tell a compelling story that honors the authors’ intentions. We aim to balance high sentiments and mundane partner changes, merge comedic circumstances with tragic pathos, and bring together characters from opera seria and commedia dell’arte in a single narrative. This is the task our production team endeavored to accomplish to inspire the singers and delight the audience. Sergey Novikov, stage director

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