As initially conceived, the work was in two parts—the first being an adaptation of Le Bourgeois gentilhomme with incidental music composed by Strauss and the second being a collision of an opera seria based on the legend of Ariadne with commedia dell’arte, which would replace the Turkish ceremony with which Molière’s play ends. The work was completed in April 1912 and premiered in Stuttgart the following October. As Charles Osborne notes:
The first night, on October 25, was something of a disaster. Though the press reports were in general favourable, the audience received the Molière-Hofmannsthal-Strauss mélange without enthusiasm. Those who had come to enjoy Molière were bored by the opera which was tacked on at the end of the comedy, while the opera-goers who had come to hear Strauss’s latest opera were vexed at having first to sit through a play by Molière.
[Charles Osborne, The Complete Operas of Strauss, London: Grange Books, 1992]
Eventually, the work was revised with the first part being entirely rewritten as a prologue to the opera. The location was changed from Paris to Vienna, all dance scenes were eliminated and the plot bears but scant resemblance to Molière’s play. The incidental music that Strauss had composed would reappear later as Le Bourgeois gentilhomme Suite (1920).
As revised, Ariadne auf Naxos premiered at the Hofoper in Vienna on 4 October 1916.
In the house of the richest man in Vienna, where a sumptuous banquet is to be held in the evening, two theatrical groups are busy preparing their entertainments. The Music Master protests to the Major-domo about the decision to follow his pupil's opera seria, Ariadne auf Naxos, with 'vulgar buffoonery'. The Major-domo makes it plain that he who pays the piper calls the tune and that the fireworks display will begin at nine o'clock. The Composer wants a last-minute rehearsal with the violinists, but they are playing during dinner. The soprano who is to sing Ariadne is not available to go through her aria; the tenor cast as Vacchus objects to his wig. There is typical backstage chaos. Seeing the attractive Zerbinetta and inquiring who she is, the composer is told by the Music Master that she is leader of the commedia dell'arte group which is to perform after the opera. Outraged, the Composer's wrath is turned aside when a new melody occurs to him. The Major-domo returns to announce that his master now requires both entertainments to be performed simultaneously and still to end at nine o'clock sharp. More uproar, during which the Dancing Master suggests that the Composer should cut his opera to accommodate the harlequinade's dances.
The plot of Ariadne is explained to Zerbinetta, who mocks the idea of 'languishing in passionate longing and praying for death'. To her, another lover is the answer. Zerbinetta and the Composer find they have something in common when Zerbinetta tells him 'A moment is nothing - a glance is much'. 'Who can say that my heart is in the part I play?' Heartened, the Composer sings of music's power. But when he sees the comedians scampering about, he cries, 'I should not have allowed it.'
On the island of Naxos, where Ariadne has been abandoned by Theseus, who took her with him from Crete after she had helped him to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne is asleep, watched over by three nymphs, Naiad, Dryad and Echo. They describe her perpetual inconsolable weeping. Ariadne wakes. She can think of nothing except her betrayal by Theseus and she wants death to end her suffering. Zerbinetta and the comedians cannot believe in her desperation and Harlequin vainly tries to cheer her with a song about the joys of life. She sings of the purity of the kingdom of death and longs for Hermes to lead her there. The comedians again try to cheer her up with singing and dancing, but to no avail. Zerbinetta sends them away and tries on her own, with her long coloratura aria, the gist of which is that there are plenty of other men besides Theseus. In the middle of the aria, Ariadne goes into her cave. Zerbinetta and her troupe then enact their entertainment in which the four comedians court her.
The three nymphs excitedly announce the arrival of the young god Bacchus, who has just escaped from the sorceress Circe. At first he mistakes Ariadne for another Circe, while she mistakes him for Theseus and then Hermes. But in the duet that follows, reality takes over and Ariadne's longing for death becomes a longing for love as Bacchus becomes aware of his divinity. As passion enfolds them, Zerbinetta comments that she was right all along: 'Off with the old, on with the new.'
Click here for the full text of the libretto.