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Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos premièred by TSO in Taipei

By Yali Chen

Hungarian conductor Stefan Soltesz. (Photo courtesy of Taipei Symphony Orchestra)Richard Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos was premièred in Taiwan by the Taipei Symphony Orchestra (TSO). The opera is a curious cross between a Greek tragedy and a romantic farce.

It is set in the home of a very rich man who has hired two very different troupes to provide some after-dinner entertainment for his invited guests. On the one hand, there is a rather precious composer and a group of opera singers to present the young composer's first work: the opera Ariadne auf Naxos. On the other hand, there is a team of burlesque dancers. Each troupe despises the other and they start quibbling about who should perform first.

That problem is both solved and worsened when they are informed that because of time pressure, the rich patron has decided that they must combine their efforts and perform together.

The first act of Strauss's opera tells of the below-stairs bickering between the two groups; the second act is their joint performance, telling the tale of Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus on an island, deserted except for a burlesque troupe that happens to be there.

At first Strauss conceived his opera Ariadne auf Naxos as part of a large-scale arrangement of Molière's funny play Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme. After its unsuccessful debut in 1912, Strauss gave up some materials from Molière's work, writing a new operatic prologue with Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Four years later, the second version of Ariadne auf Naxos was unveiled in Vienna and has become one of the best-loved works of the Strauss-Hofmannsthal collaboration.

In 2014 the Taipei-based TSO selected Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos as its year-end production, inviting Hungarian conductor Stefan Soltesz, Austrian director Michael Sturminger, Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin, Russian tenor Sergey Skorokhodov, German mezzo-soprano Daniela Sindram, Russian coloratura soprano Julia Novikova, and German baritone Wolfgang Schöne to give this grand performance.

TaiwanTaiwan's performers such as baritone Wu-Bei Yu-hsi, soprano Grace Lin, alto Weng Jo-pei, and actress Lang Tsu-yun also appeared on stage together.

Born in Hungary in 1949, Stefan Soltesz moved to Vienna during his childhood. He studied conducting with Hans Swarowsky at the Vienna Academy of Music, where he also received his training in composition and piano.

His artistic career was launched in 1971, as conductor at the Theater an der Wien, followed by engagements as coach and conductor at the Vienna State Opera (1973-1983) and as guest conductor at the Opera House in Graz (1979-1981). During three editions of the Salzburg Festival, in 1978, 1979 and 1983, he worked as a musical assistant to Karl Böhm, Christoph von Dohnányi and Herbert von Karajan.

From 1997 to 2013, Soltesz has served as the general music director of the Essener Philharmoniker and as artistic director of the Essen opera house Aalto Theater. Today he is a frequent guest conductor at the Vienna State Opera and at the major opera houses of Germany, for instance in Berlin, Dresden, Hamburg and Munich.

His discography includes operas by Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Gazzaniga and Alexander von Zemlinsky, as well as various symphonic works. His recent recording of music by Alban Berg and Hans Werner Henze won a Grammy nomination as well as an ICMA nomination. Strauss' Salome from the Baden-Baden festival and Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande from Aalto Teater were also published as DVD. His latest projects include a new production of Wagner's Lohengrin in Warsaw and Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Taipei.

Austrian director Michael Sturminger. (Photo courtesy of Taipei Symphony Orchestra)Michael Sturminger studied stage directing and stagecraft at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst in Vienna. Since 1990 he has become an independent scriptwriter and director, staging films, theater productions and operas. Highlights of his career have included works at the Zurich Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, the Wiener Volksoper, the Stadttheater in Klagenfurt, and opera houses in Graz, Cologne, Wiesbaden, Wuppertal, Gelsenkirchen and Innsbruck.

Sturminger has always paid particular attention to the music of Mozart. He staged the composer's operas Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Così fan tutte and Il sogno di Scipione in 2006 at the Salzburg Festival. In 2007 at the opera house in Graz he staged La clemenza di Tito, and in 2009 together with Valery Gergiev he staged a production of the opera Idomeneo, re di Creta at the Mariinsky Theatre, returning there in 2011 for a production of Ariadne auf Naxos.

In 2006 the stage director's enthusiasm for Mozart inspired him to create the original opera I Hate Mozart at the Theater an der Wien. Sturminger himself wrote the libretto, while the music was composed by one of the most famous contemporary composers – Bernhard Lang. In May 2010 in Augsburg in Germany there was a new production of this opera.

The uniqueness of Strauss's opera Ariadne auf Naxos lies in a story within a story, Sturminger says in Taipei, adding that he expects the audience can get the feeling of watching a play within a play.

Swedish soprano Irene Theorin as Ariadne in StraussIréne Theorin studied at the Music Academy and Royal Opera School in Copenhagen. After her debut as Brünnhilde in Copenhagen, she toured with this role in Cologne, London, Beijing, Budapest, Berlin, Dresden, New York, Washington, Barcelona, Milano, and Tokyo. She has long been associated with the Royal Danish Opera in Copenhagen, and sings a wonderful Brünnhilde in the so-called Copenhagen Ring, in which she also displays great acting skills.

In 2005, Theorin made her debut as Turandot in Copenhagen. Guest performances in this role followed in Essen, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, Guangzhou, Dresden, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden London, San Francisco, Metropolitan Opera New York, the Bayerische Staatsoper München and Arena di Verona. In 2006, the Swedish soprano sang her first Isolde at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, followed by Essen, Rotterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo, Berlin, and at the Washington National Opera. In 2010, she gave her debut at the Salzburger Festspiele as Elektra, a role she also sang in Stockholm and Paris with great success.

Theorin has been well-known to Washington audiences because she sang the title role in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in 2009 and received enthusiastic reviews. That's why the Taipei Symphony Orchestra invited her to play this role at the National Theater in the capital of Taiwan.

Born in St Petersburg, Sergey Skorokhodov finished his studies at the St Petersburg Glinka Choral School and the St Petersburg State Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatoire. He made his debut as Guido Bardi in Zemlinsky's Eine florentinische Tragodie at the noted Mariinsky Theatre in 1999. From 2007 he has been one of the young leaders as soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre.

Taiwanese veteran performer Lang Tsu-yun made her acting debut in 1991. Over the past few years, her artistic career has ranged from stage plays to Chinese crosstalk (xiangsheng), Taiwanese opera (gezaixi) and directing. She also served as a TV show host and a radio host.

This year the Taipei-based orchestra asked her to play the majordomo in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxo. The wealthy patron in Vienna commissions two pieces of entertainment for a private dinner party: an opera based on the myth of Ariadne in exile, and a capering troupe of clowns for comic relief. He sends his majordomo to announce the line up of events: the opera, then the comedy, and then fireworks in the garden. The acclaimed production by the Taipei-based orchestra delivers a deliciously theatrical mix of lowbrow comedy and high art, offering surprises and delights at every turn.