Summary for the Busy Executive: A lot in a little.
We all know that Wagner, tired from his labors with the Ring, gave himself a holiday by composing Tristan. Similarly, Martinů, overwhelmed by his work on his final opera, The Greek Passion, took a respite by composing Ariane. He never lived to see it staged (it premièred in 1961; the composer died in 1959).
As with Tristan, Ariane is light only compared to the larger work it hangs from. Martinů asked his friend and occasional collaborator, the French Surrealist poet Georges Neveux (librettist for Martinů's best-known opera, Julietta) for a little something, and Neveux came up with a marvelous libretto, as far as I know his greatest work. It belongs to the very deep French tradition of retelling the old Greek myths or, rather, re-explaining our lives in terms of the old Greek myths.
Theseus arrives in his ship with the six Athenian youths to slay the Minotaur. They meet an old man, the "city drummer," whose job it is to announce weddings and funerals. They ask the old man about the Minotaur, and he replies that the Minotaur fights only at night and that he announces his arrival "by the beat of your heart." The six youths go off, leaving Theseus alone to practice with his weapon. Ariadne enters. She wants Theseus to leave, so she can meet her lover alone. Theseus explains that he waits for the Minotaur. Ariadne replies that she waits for the Minotaur as well, but although they have spoken, she has never seen him. She feels the Minotaur very close at hand and begs Theseus to go. Theseus refuses, and Ariadne calls out to the Minotaur that she doesn't want Theseus killed. The city drummer re-enters to announce the wedding of the king's daughter and "a stranger," newly-arrived in the city. The daughter turns out to be Ariadne, and the stranger, Theseus.
In the second scene, the Minotaur (offstage) has slain one of the Athenians. Theseus once more sets out to kill the Minotaur. Ariadne tells Theseus that his fear of losing her may jeopardize him in the fight, and that he must forget her. "Then I am lost," says Theseus. Alone, he calls for the Minotaur, who answers, like an echo. He calls out for "the other Theseus," "the Theseus that was," to come to his aid. The Minotaur appears, and it turns out that he looks exactly like Theseus. Theseus asks why. "Who do you think I should look like?" replies the Minotaur. "You may kill a snake, an eagle, a bull… but who dares to aim his blow at himself and die by his own hand?" Theseus kills the monster. Ariadne returns and, regarding the dead Minotaur, says to Theseus, "I knew he looked like you."
In the last scene, leaving Ariadne behind, Theseus sails back to Athens with his companions. Ariadne sings her lament.
It's a typical Surrealist mish-mash of prophecy, dream, shape-changing, and Doppelgänger. I have no idea what it all adds up to, but I strongly suspect that Neveux deliberately keeps the meaning ambiguous and fluid. The story isn't really a parable of anything, in the sense that one can draw a straight line from symbol to paraphrasable meaning. As in a dream, one gets the momentary feeling of comprehension without knowing exactly what one comprehends. Knowing somebody's name means that you have grasped an essential truth, far more than knowing someone's appearance. The surface of things deceive. The Minotaur appears in the shape of his victims, deception but also expressing a fundamental identity. "I am the slayer and the slain" says Emerson's Brahma.
Martinů comes up with stunning music for all this, as well as a new way of creating music drama. Martinů disliked realistic theater. His operas run from Surrealistic farce, pure Surrealism, medieval mystery plays, vaudeville slapstick, to the magic realism of his final opera, The Greek Passion. Here, he takes a surrealist text and puts it in the dramatic context of early Baroque opera. There probably hasn't been so Monteverdian an opera since Orfeo. One encounters purely instrumental little sinfonias scattered throughout, things that look very much like aria da capo, and recitatives so austere and so swift-moving that large sections of story fly by, allowing the listener to concentrate on the emotions of characters. Yet the music is also outstandingly Martinů's. It's as if he bends each musical convention to his own way. The music climaxes exactly where it should, with that classic trope of Baroque music, Ariadne's lament. Neveux's language here is so simple that a schoolboy knowledge of French is really all one needs to take in the surface. The meaning of it all remains another matter. Martinů comes up with music of awe-inspiring, even Classical nobility. One may not follow the train of Ariadne's thought, but one has no doubt at all of the depth of her feeling. The end of the opera contains a little musical surprise, which I won't give away here, but which flits through the musical fabric like a surrealist bus-ticket to exactly the same spot.
Celina Lindsley and Norman Phillips, the Ariadne and Theseus, sing with dramatic point. Lindsley has a Judith-Blegen soprano, sweet and creamy, but without quite the weight. Phillips puts a lot of ping into his baritone, à la the late John Reardon. Both Americans handle the French libretto capably, although not outstandingly well. Often something goes slightly askew with their vowels. Nevertheless, Phillips does better than Lindsley in this regard. But this, in a way, praises the clarity of their voices. You can actually hear these subtle differences of pronunciation. No reservation at all about the orchestra or the conductor, Vaclav Neumann. The orchestra becomes the primary engine of dramatic movement. The rhythms are sharp, the colors varied.
The only real reservation I have - unfortunately, a large one - is the short time on the disc. For a Martinů fanatic like me, there's no question I'll not only buy the CD, but consider myself lucky and content to have heard the work. The uncertainty in the back of my mind pertains to others. Make no mistake: I consider this a moving and profound opera. I imagine with difficulty someone it will not move. However, I can easily picture somebody who enjoyed the opera and still feels cheated by the large ring of virgin territory on the back of the disc. Consider yourself warned.
Copyright © 2003, Steve Schwartz