Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos - which recording should you buy?

Guest Fri 2nd May 2014

Hugo Shirley listens to the available recordings of Strauss’s opera and recommends his favourite

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos - which recording should you buy?

Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos - which recording should you buy?

The original Ariadne auf Naxos (1912), a chamber opera appended to a reworking of Molière’s Le bourgeois gentilhomme, was not a success. Reluctantly, Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal decided to embark upon a reworking of their bold experiment. The Molière went, and with it Strauss’s delicious incidental music. It was replaced by an ingenious, much shorter prologue set in the house of the ‘richest man in Vienna’ (instead of that of Molière’s merely nouveau riche Monsieur Jourdain) and explaining the reasons for the all-important collision of high tragedy and commedia dell’arte in the opera. That opera now took up the bulk of the evening, the multiple self-reflective levels allowed to melt away rather than being reinforced as they had been in 1912 – ‘Irony and comedy’, as Michael Kennedy has put it, ‘were replaced by rapture.’

The new version was unveiled in (appropriately enough) Vienna in 1916 and has become one of the best-loved works of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration, but one uniquely demanding for its performers. It needs for Zerbinetta a sympathetic coloratura soprano who’s up to the stratospheric demands of ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’ (admittedly shortened and transposed down for the 1916 score); and for Ariadne, a prima donna is needed who can remain unruffled through her two taxing arias and convey a sense of mystical, Hofmannsthalian transformation when she finally falls into the tenor’s arms. That tenor, on the other hand, has to overcome the godlike demands on voice and stamina, and avoid arriving like a bull in a musical china shop. The Composer – a new role in the prologue, designated a soprano or mezzo in the score, though Strauss’s preference was for the former – must make us care about the fate of his opera and, by extension, its characters. The work requires a versatile extended cast and orchestral players able to make the most of Strauss’s ingeniously pared-down instrumentation. An Ariadne conductor, meanwhile, needs to capture hustle and bustle in the prologue, and balance chromatic death-seeking à la Tristan and period-costumed jollity in the opera. The long final duet should not seem long; the comic interludes should be, well, comic.

‘The complexity of the piece has attracted a relatively small number of expert performers, creating a discography of remarkably high quality’

Quality undervalued

The complexity of the piece has attracted a relatively small number of expert performers, creating a discography of remarkably high quality. But it’s noticeable – and regrettable – that such quality seems undervalued by record companies today: no currently available set comes with a libretto (except, ironically, Chandos’s 2010 recording in English); many are now available only in cheap and unappealing packaging, or as part of large box-sets. The only studio recording by perhaps the greatest Ariadne conductor of all, Karl Böhm, made in 1969 with the Bavarian RSO for DG (4/71), seems to have made only the most fleeting appearance on CD.

The earliest recording, by Clemens Krauss in 1935, is of the opera only (without the prologue). Krauss was one of Strauss’s closest musical collaborators, and his wife, Viorica Ursuleac, had been the first Arabella two years earlier. However, her foggy, somewhat effortful and short-breathed Ariadne doesn’t, one feels, give much sense of her artistry here. The recording’s main virtues, perceptible despite the rudimentary sound, come in the shape of its remarkable Zerbinetta and Bacchus: Erna Berger is wonderfully communicative as the former, her aria, dazzling fireworks included, sounding natural and conversational; Helge Roswaenge is a properly heroic god, and few sing the role with anything like his security.

The easy-going fluidity of Krauss’s interpretation contrasts interestingly with Karl Böhm’s tenser, more athletic conducting of a 1944 concert performance from the Vienna Staatsoper, part of reluctantly sanctioned 80th-birthday celebrations for a Strauss suddenly and dangerously out of favour with the Nazis. The cast is outstanding, with the 24-year-old Irmgard Seefried a gloriously fresh and impetuous Composer, beautifully balanced by Paul Schöffler’s avuncular Music Master. Maria Reining’s Ariadne sails elegantly through the role with luxurious, creamy tone, if little sense of her development as a character. Alda Noni is a sparkling Zerbinetta and Max Lorenz a powerful, secure Bacchus.

A decade later came a trio of studio Ariadnes. Herbert Kegel’s account with the Leipzig Radio Orchestra can be easily dismissed: it’s a swift, unaffectionate run-through, with Brünnhild Friedland as an Ariadne who, despite a promisingly Wagnerian name, sounds more like a Zerbinetta. Christa Maria Ziese is a thin-toned, squally Composer, Jutta Vulpius’s droopy Zerbinetta wilts as her aria progresses, and her fellow comedians sound as though they’ve rolled out of a Leipzig pub, bringing the out-of-tune piano with them. Kurt Schüffler is an impressively musical Bacchus but Kegel’s conducting is much too foursquare and inflexible.

Joseph Keilberth’s Cologne recording, in clean (if voice-heavy) mono sound, is much better. Sena Jurinac’s Composer – a touch less impulsive than Seefried’s a decade earlier – is wonderful. Rita Streich’s Zerbinetta, recorded some 10 weeks before her account for Karajan, is sure-footed and appealingly touching. Hilde Zadek is a straightforward but gently sympathetic Ariadne who negotiates the role with impressively focused tone and no hint of technical difficulty; and Hans Hopf is a slightly wooden, yet reliable, Bacchus. The conducting is unfussy and clear-sighted, if a little short on elation late on.

Famed offerings

For the famous Herbert von Karajan recording, multilayered sophistication is more the order of the day. It features Walter Legge’s crack cast, conducting that really plumbs the work’s multiple depths and a Philharmonia Orchestra on quite wonderful form – Dennis Brain plays the all-important horn solos gloriously. Sixty years on, though, the recording sounds dated and brittle: Alfred Neugebauer’s Major-Domo is awkwardly spliced in to the prologue, and the closely recorded voices mask some orchestral detail. But Elisabeth Schwarzkopf conveys Ariadne’s gradual, tentative transition from self-conscious aristocratic sorrow to open-hearted exultation. She is stretched occasionally, but few Ariadnes are as movingly communicative – and she sends herself up wonderfully as the Prima Donna. Her Bacchus, Rudolf Schock, plays his part well, and is similarly subtle with the text, even if his slightly monochrome, grainy tenor offers few sensual delights. Seefried’s impassioned, vocally resplendent Composer is rivalled only by Jurinac’s. The secondary cast is outstanding, and the comedians, led by the 25-year-old Hermann Prey, are extremely well behaved – not least in following Strauss’s meticulous dynamic markings.

The ‘official’ DG release of the Salzburg Festival performance conducted by Karl Böhm exactly a month after the final London session for the Karajan recording is worth seeling out on Gala (and download) for Hilde Güden’s delightfully natural and human Zerbinetta and Lisa Della Casa’s Ariadne, even if the Swiss soprano is better heard in extracts she recorded with the BPO in 1959 (available on Testament SBT1036). The main interest in Erich Leinsdorf’s muddily recorded 1958 studio account with the VPO (currently unavailable) resides in the opportunity it affords to hear Jurinac’s Composer again – a little less fresh-sounding and urgent but still richly committed. There’s also Leonie Rysanek’s generously heartfelt but hardly immaculate Ariadne, as well as Roberta Peters’s pinpoint but one-dimensionally soubrettish Zerbinetta.

A second famous EMI set, the 1968 recording conducted by Rudolf Kempe, is the most exquisite, crystalline account on record. The stereo sound is clean and the playing of the Staatskapelle Dresden is a model of chamber-music clarity. The cast is led by a luminous Gundula Janowitz, whose soprano – at once glassy and creamy – remains serenely unruffled throughout, but also, it has to be said, stubbornly uninvolved and uninvolving. Similarly, Teresa Zylis-Gara’s soprano Composer is beautifully sung but doesn’t persuade me, at least, to believe in her opera. Sylvia Geszty is a brilliant Zerbinetta, technically spot-on but with a richer, fuller timbre than most. James King’s straightforwardly heroic, ringing Bacchus has a good stab at subtlety but seems like an interloper, in more ways than one, in this Ariadne’s delicate world. The supporting cast is outstanding, and Kempe’s conducting is supremely refined and musical. But this set, for all its virtues, strikes me as too abstract and undramatic, and the orchestra-heavy balance further detracts from the immediacy.

1970 onwards

Janowitz is on less technically perfect but much more affecting form for Karl Böhm in Vienna in one of the most completely satisfying recordings there is. It was captured live at the Staatsoper in November 1976, at the first night of the then-new Filippo Sanjust production (which, incidentally, lasted until 2012). Here the soprano presents a living, breathing and tender Ariadne, whose arias are still beautifully done and whose final scene, including an exquisitely whispered ‘Gibt es kein Hinüber?’, is supremely moving. The young Edita Gruberová’s Zerbinetta is fresh and unmannered, spirited and flighty – not only brilliantly secure but also genuinely touching. Agnes Baltsa as the Composer is fiery and urgent in the manner of her Vienna predecessors, and her mezzo, with an attractive little flutter in the timbre, has the role well in its compass. King is Bacchus again, singing with characteristically beefy heroism; and the smaller roles are well taken. We hear a lot of the rushing around in the prologue but otherwise the sound is remarkably clear and realistic, even if Bacchus drifts out of earshot at one of his moments critiques. But it’s Böhm’s conducting, unerringly and naturally charting the shifts between humour, pathos and transcendence, that ultimately makes this a set to treasure.

The only studio recording of the decade, Georg Solti’s 1978 account on Decca, is a disappointment. There’s fine playing from the LPO but Leontyne Price – late in her career – makes a hollow-sounding, effortful Ariadne. René Kollo is a forthright, sappy Bacchus with some fine moments; but there’s clearly something wrong in the final duet when one looks forward more to the tenor’s passages than to the soprano’s. Gruberová repeats her Zerbinetta, and Tatiana Troyanos is a slightly strident Composer, but one who nevertheless is fully involved in the drama. There’s good work from the secondary cast, but, without the conductor exploring much beyond the notes, not a great deal to recommend here.

Wolfgang Sawallisch’s 1982 Salzburg Festival account is also something of a disappointment, an overly portentous performance recorded live with the balance favouring the Vienna Philharmonic’s limelight-stealing solo cello and braying first horn. None of the singers is on terribly good form, particularly Anna Tomowa-Sintow: not even an ugly breath in the first phrase of ‘Ein Schönes war’ can prevent it from sagging. There’s much to like in Trudeliese Schmidt’s Composer but she too has some tuning problems. There’s another Gruberová Zerbinetta, and King is Bacchus once more, now sounding noticeably tighter and more effortful.

The digital age

Tomowa-Sintow is heard in happier circumstances in the first studio recording of the digital age, James Levine’s lovingly shaped 1986 account for DG, beautifully played by the VPO again and captured in detailed if slightly artificial sound. The conducting is large-scale and the casting luxurious, right down to Barbara Bonney and Dawn Upshaw as Naiade and Echo. Baltsa repeats her highly strung Composer, and more than three decades after he recorded Harlequin for Karajan, Prey is an appealingly world-weary Music Master. Otto Schenk’s laconic Major-Domo is a performance to treasure; but, though Kathleen Battle’s Zerbinetta is a marvel of technique and vocal ease, overall the characterisation feels bland. Tomowa-Sintow’s timbre sounds just right for Ariadne but her performance remains somewhat effortful; Gary Lakes’s Bacchus is clear-toned and secure but dramatically blank.

Kurt Masur’s Philips set boasts urbane, refined virtuosity from the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, captured in immaculate engineering – the harmonium, in particular, comes across with clarity. Jessye Norman’s Ariadne is occasionally immovable (and, by extension, unmoving) in her regal splendour but has its undeniably thrilling moments too. Her Bacchus, Paul Frey, is musical and has the notes, but his timbre is rather fuzzy. Julia Varady throws everything at her performance of the Composer, and her slightly tangy, breathy soprano communicates urgency well. Gruberová’s Zerbinetta remains a tour de force, but rather too knowingly so here. Masur’s conducting is extremely musical but rather heavy and po-faced in the comic moments.

Ariadne’s only studio appearance in the 1990s was in her original guise, in Kent Nagano’s Lyons recording of the 1912 version. It gives us all of Strauss’s music from Der Bürger als Edelmann, which is represented only in truncated monologues for Monsieur Jourdain. Nagano’s conducting is under-characterised, and the artificial engineering puts a haze around Margaret Price’s detailed but distanced Ariadne and Gösta Winbergh’s excellent Bacchus. Sumi Jo’s brilliant Zerbinetta still sparkles in the extreme demands of the original version. For the 1912Ariadne, this set is still preferable to the curious VAI DVD of a 1969 Boston concert performance (of the opera only) clearly conceived as a showcase for Beverly Sills’s shrill Zerbinetta – she gets through the longer version of the role well enough, despite a couple of judicious ‘omissions’, but never really gives much sense of anything but a competent run-through. Claire Watson’s heartfelt Ariadne is much better, and Robert Nagy has a good stab at Bacchus but tires towards the end. Erich Leinsdorf’s conducting is efficient, not much more.

Giuseppe Sinopoli’s final opera recording is the most vocally consistent and interestingly conducted modern set. The gleaming security of Deborah Voigt’s Ariadne precludes much real sense of vulnerability but there is plenty of magnificent singing from her. Bacchus’s difficulties melt away for Ben Heppner, who sings with clarion tone and impressive musicality, enunciating the words clearly. Natalie Dessay makes similarly light work of Zerbinetta, and Anne Sofie von Otter is an intelligent, moving Composer. The rest of the cast is of high quality. Sinopoli’s conducting explores extremes but he and the wonderful Staatskapelle Dresden players seem to breathe naturally with the drama: this is an account that really communicates the overflowing complexities of the final duet.

Mention should also be made of Chandos’s Ariadne on Naxos, expertly conducted by Richard Armstrong. Alice Coote’s predictably committed Composer and Gillian Keith’s skittish Zerbinetta are admirable, but Christopher Cowell’s translation becomes less audible as the opera progresses and, for all their vocal security, Christine Brewer and Robert Dean Smith are an uninvolving Ariadne and Bacchus.


Yet another Karl Böhm account, a 1965 Salzburg Festival telecast (featuring the same Bacchus and Ariadne – Jess Thomas and Hildegard Hillebrecht – as his 1969 studio recording), is the earliest available on film and has recently been reissued on ArtHaus DVD. It would likely have been more appealing had the originally slated Ariadne, Christa Ludwig, not been indisposed. (A recording with Ludwig from the previous year, available now only as a Myto download, shows what the first-night audience missed.) For those able to overcome the artificiality of Filippo Sanjust’s 1978 film on DG of his own Vienna staging (it features much of the same cast as in 1976, mouthing to a newly recorded soundtrack), this proves the more involving, amusing and ultimately moving traditional option, and it is also conducted by Böhm.

Strauss’s beloved Staatskapelle Dresden features on two currently available DVD versions. Filmed at the Semperoper in the same year as Sinopoli’s recording (and featuring the same disarmingly beautiful, slightly tremulous principal horn), Marco Arturo Marelli’s staging boasts clear-minded, instinctively musical conducting from Colin Davis and an excellent Composer in Sophie Koch. The rest of the cast is perfectly decent, but Susan Anthony’s Ariadne is short on lustre and tires quickly. Marelli’s style-over-substance updating is inoffensive and, like Philippe Arlaud’s 2012 Baden-Baden production, insists on keeping the Composer (Koch again, here sporting a Rolando Villazón-style wig) on stage to witness his opera. This Decca issue benefits from Christian Thielemann’s generous, increasingly ecstatic account of the score, but I find nothing but artificiality in Renée Fleming’s soupy Ariadne.

Of the two Metropolitan Opera performances, both generously and expertly conducted by James Levine, the 1988 film of Bodo Igesz’s traditional staging is worth having for Norman’s Ariadne, as well as Battle and Troyanos in their respective roles of Zerbinetta and the Composer. However, both the production and its Bacchus (King’s final appearance in this survey) feel very long in the tooth; the picture quality also shows its age. Elijah Moshinsky’s subsequent production, captured in 2003, makes a feature of unnecessary excess, plumps for a vaguely stylised traditional approach and captures Voigt and Dessay on fine form. Claus Guth’s more radical rethinking from Zurich three years later is the most interesting recent performance on DVD – and the most involving. It adds a fair deal of extra complexity to the piece but is beautifully produced and directed, not to mention very well conducted by Christoph von Dohnányi. The cast is generally excellent, but in the end this account is made supremely compelling by Emily Magee’s powerfully committed central performance.

The upshot

Ultimately, the 82-year-old Böhm’s 1976 performance, which reflects a lifetime of conducting the work in the theatre, is for me the most involving and moving account on disc. Karajan’s classic set – admittedly less big-H historical than Böhm’s 1944 recording – is my historical choice, for exploring so many possibilities in both Strauss’s score and Hofmannsthal’s uniquely rich and complex libretto. For a modern recording, Sinopoli’s offers some of that sense of mystery and profundity, with outstanding playing, engineering and singing. With this multifaceted work, though, three audio recordings will never seem enough.

Historical choice

Karajan Naxos 8 111033/4

Although it’s now showing its age, Karajan’s classic account boasts one of the most subtle and nuanced Ariadnes in Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, alongside Irmgard Seefried’s unsurpassed Composer. The Philharmonia play wonderfully, and the conducting is supremely sophisticated and subtly shaded. 

Modern choice

Sinopoli Brilliant 9084 

With a brilliant cast in robust vocal health, this account boasts outstanding singing. Sinopoli is daringly expressive in matching the work’s shifting emotions and the Dresden orchestra’s playing oozes class. Beautifully engineered, this set is now an unmissable bargain. 

DVD/Blu-ray choice

Dohnányi ArtHaus 108 045

There are more conventional and straightforward Ariadnes on DVD but Claus Guth’s stylishly updated production is fascinatingly complex, rich and serious-minded. It features an engrossing central performance from Emily Magee and an appealingly italianate Bacchus from Roberto Saccà. 

Top choice

Böhm (1976) Orfeo C817 112I

An Ariadne auf Naxos for and of the theatre, Böhm’s live Vienna State Opera account might not boast the crystalline audiophile refinements of the studio, but it is dramatically satisfying and moving like no other, capturing a wonderful cast in their prime.

Selected discography

Date / Artists / Record company (review date)

1935 Ursuleac, Roswaenge; Berlin Reichsenders Orch / Krauss [opera only] Preiser 90259 (8/96 – nla) Read review; Pristine PACO021

1944 Reining, Lorenz, Seefried; Vienna St Op / Böhm Preiser 90217 (11/94 – nla) Read review; Myto MCD00163

1954 Della Casa, Schock, Seefried; VPO / Böhm DG 445 332-2GX2 (11/94) Read review; Gala GL100513

1954 Schwarzkopf, Schock, Seefried; Philh Orch / Karajan EMI 567077-2 (10/55R, 11/99) Read review; Naxos 8 111033/4

1954 Friedland, Schüffler, Ziese; Leipzig Rad Orch / Kegel Walhall WLCD0231

1954 Zadek, Hopf, Jurinac; Cologne RSO / Keilberth Walhall WLCD0101 (A/05); Capriccio 67 166/7

1958 Rysanek, Peerce, Jurinac; VPO / Leinsdorf Decca 443 675-2DMO2 (4/61R, 5/72R, 12/95 – nla) Read review

1965 Hillebrecht, Thomas, Jurinac; VPO / Böhm TDK DVD DV-CLOPAAN (11/04) Read review; ArtHaus DVD 107 255

1968 Janowitz, King, Zylis-Gara; Staatskapelle Dresden / Kempe EMI 208824-2 (11/68R, 11/92); Warner 4317992

1969 Watson, Nagy; Boston SO / Leinsdorf [1912 version; opera only] VAI DVD 4363

1976 Janowitz, King, Baltsa; Vienna St Op / Böhm Orfeo C817 112I (5/12) Read review

1977 L Price, Kollo, Troyanos; LPO / Solti Decca 460 233-2DHO2; 478 3704DB15 (6/79R)

1978 Janowitz, Kollo, T Schmidt; VPO / Böhm DG DVD 073 4370GH (11/94R)

1982 Tomowa-Sintow, King, T Schmidt; VPO / Sawallisch Orfeo C625 042I (3/05) Read review

1986 Tomowa-Sintow, Lakes, Baltsa; VPO / Levine DG 453 112-2GTA2 (12/87R)

1988 Norman, King, Troyanos; NY Met Op / Levine DG DVD 073 028-9GH (11/02) Read review

1988 Norman, Frey, Varady; Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch / Masur Decca 478 5794DMO2 (11/88R)

1997 M Price, Winbergh; Lyons Nat Op / Nagano [1912 version] Virgin 559867-2 (9/97R)

2000 Anthony, Villars, Koch; Staatskapelle Dresden / C Davis ArtHaus DVD 100 171 (8/01)

2000 Voigt, Heppner, von Otter; Staatskapelle Dresden / Sinopoli DG 471 323-2GH2; Brilliant 9084 (A/01)

2003 Voigt, Margison, Mentzer; NY Met Op / Levine Virgin DVD 641867-9 (7/11) Read review

2006 Magee, Saccà, Breedt; Zurich Op / Dohnányi ArtHaus DVD 107 249; Blu-ray 108 045

2010 Brewer, RD Smith, Coote; SCO / Armstrong [sung in Eng] Chandos CHAN3168 (11/10)

2012 Fleming, RD Smith, Koch; Staatskapelle Dresden / Thielemann Decca DVD 074 3809DH; Blu-ray 074 3810DH (9/13) Read review

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Gramophone. 

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