Today, I want to talk about German opera, specifically Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss.  I am going to reveal my terrible prejudice now – I think that the best vocal music is in German.  I’m happy for anybody to convince me otherwise.  This opera is a little farfetched, but it does have a very, very difficult coloratura role that almost nobody today can sing.  I will give a very brief synopsis, and then I will provided two renditions of one of the most famous arias from the opera, Es Gibt ein Reich.

Synopsis

Vienna, 18th century. In the house of a rich man, preparations are in progress for the performance of a new opera seria, “Ariadne auf Naxos.” The major-domo enters to inform the music master that immediately after the opera an Italian comedy will be performed, followed by a fireworks display in the garden. The outraged music master replies that the composer, his young pupil, will never tolerate that, but the major-domo is unimpressed by his objections and leaves. When the composer appears, hoping for a last-minute rehearsal, a disdainful servant tells him that the musicians are still playing dinner music. Suddenly the tenor rushes from his dressing room, arguing with the wigmaker. The prima donna furiously comments on the presence of the comedy troupe and their leading lady, Zerbinetta. In the middle of the confusion, the major-domo returns with an announcement: in order for the fireworks to begin on time, the opera and the comedy are to be performed simultaneously.
General consternation soon gives way to practical reactions. The dancing master suggests cutting the opera’s score. The music master persuades the despairing composer to do so, while the two lead singers independently urge him to abridge the other’s part. Meanwhile, Zerbinetta gives her troupe a briefing on the opera’s plot. Ariadne, they are told, has been abandoned by her lover Theseus on the island of Naxos, where she now waits for death. Zerbinetta, however, claims that all Ariadne really needs is a new lover. When the composer vehemently disagrees, Zerbinetta begins to flirt with him. Suddenly the young man finds new hope. Filled with love and enthusiasm for his work, he passionately declares music the greatest of all the arts (“Musik ist eine heilige Kunst”). But when he catches sight of the comedians, ready to go on stage, he realizes with horror what he has agreed to. He blames the music master for the artistic debacle and runs off.

THE OPERA

The Ariadne myth tells how Prince Theseus of Athens set out for Crete to kill the Minotaur, a creature half man, half bull, who was concealed in a labyrinth. Princess Ariadne of Crete fell in love with Theseus and gave him a ball of thread that enabled him to find his way out of the labyrinth after he had killed the Minotaur. When Theseus left Crete, he took Ariadne with him as his bride. During their voyage home they stopped at the island of Naxos. While Ariadne was asleep, Theseus slipped away and continued his journey to Athens without her. The opera Ariadne auf Naxos begins at this point.
Ariadne is alone in front of her cave. Three nymphs look on and lament her fate. Watching from the wings, the comedians are doubtful whether they will be able to cheer her up. Ariadne recalls her love for Theseus (“Ein Schönes war”), then imagines herself as a chaste girl, awaiting death. Harlekin tries to divert her with a song (“Lieben, Hassen, Hoffen, Zagen”) but Ariadne ignores him. As if in a trance, she resolves to await Hermes, messenger of death. He will take her to another world where everything is pure (“Es gibt ein Reich”).

Here is Es gibt ein Reich.  Which version do you like better and why?

Es gibt ein Reich,
Wo alles rein ist :
Es hat auch einen Namen :
Totenreich.
Hier ist nichts rein!
Hier kam alles zu allem.
Bald aber naht ein Bote,
Hermes heißen sie ihn.
Mit seinem Stab
regiert er die Seelen :
Wie leichte Vögel,
Wie welke Blätter
Treibt er sie hin.
Du schöner, stiller Gott!
Sieh! Ariadne wartet!
Ach, von allen wilden Schmerzen
Muß das Herz gereinigt sein;
Dann wird dein Gesicht mir nicken,
Wird dein Schritt vor meiner Höhle,
Dunkel wird auf meinen Augen
Deine Hand auf meinem Herzen sein.
In den schönen Feierkleidern,
Die mir meine Mutter gab,
Diese Glieder werden bleiben,
Stille Höhle wird mein Grab.
Aber lautlos meine Seele
Folget ihrem neuen Herrn,
Wie ein leichtes Blatt im Winde
Folgt hinunter, folgt so gern.

Du wirst mich befreien,
Mir selber mich geben,
Dies lastende Leben
Du nimm es von mir.
An dich werd’ ich mich ganz verlieren,
Bei dir wird Ariadne sein.

There is a realm,
Where everything is pure:
It even has a name:
The Realm of Death.
Here nothing is pure!
Here anything could happen.
Soon however will appear a Messenger,
HIs name is Hermes.
With his staff
He governs souls:
Like airy birds,
Like withered leaves
He drives them away.
You handsome, quiet God!
See! Ariadne awaits you!
Oh, from all pains
the Heart must be cleansed;
Then will you face nod to me,
Will you step before my cave,
Darkness will come to my eyes
Your hand will be on my heart.
In beautiful ceremonial gowns
Which my mother gave me,
These limbs shall remain,
The quiet cave shall be my grave.
But silently my soul
Follows its new lord
As a light leaf in the wind
Sinks down, follows so gladly.

You shall set me free,
You shall return me to myself
This burdensome life
You take it from me.
I shall become completely lost in you,
Ariadne shall stay with you.

Frida Leider

Frida Leider (April 18, 1888 – June 4, 1975) was a German opera singer.  She was born in Berlin and studied singing in her free time while working in a bank. Her tutor was Otto Schwarz. Leider also eventually studied with Louis Bachner, an American who helped several well known Europeans free up their voices.  In 1915 she made her debut as Venus at the Stadttheater Halle. Her next engagement took her to Rostock in 1916, where she stayed until 1918, singing mainly Italian and Mozart roles. In 1918 she moved to the Opera House at Königsberg, and in 1920 she was engaged by the Hamburg Stadttheater. Leider made her debut there as Leonore followed by Aida. In three seasons she sang all the Wagnerian dramatic roles (!), as well as Ariadne, Donna Anna and several Italian parts. In 1921 she was contracted to the Berlin State Opera by its director and composer Max von Schillings. There, she reappeared as Leonore under Erich Kleiber. Her debut role at Covent Garden was Isolde. In 1928 she was heard at the Bayreuth Festival (Brünnhilde and Kundry). For four seasons she was a highly acclaimed artist at the Chicago Opera where she sang Brünnhilde in Walküre, Isolde, Venus, Leonore, Amelia, Kundry, and the Marschallin. Eventually, Leider was hired by the Met where she made her debut in 1933 as Isolde.  Leider was one of the most important dramatic sopranos of the 20th century. Her most famous roles were Wagner’s Isolde and Brünnhilde, Beethoven’s Fidelio, Mozart’s Donna Anna, and Verdi’s Aida and Leonora. She made over 80 recordings, mainly for Polydor and HMV.  She appeared at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires and at La Scala. In 1938 the singer’s operatic career came to a sudden end. Her Jewish husband, Rudolf Deman, violinist and leader of the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, and the singer were forced to emigrate because of the political situation in Germany. We owe it to the well-known accompanist Michael Raucheisen that her voice continued to be heard. He persuaded her to build up a song repertoire and they gave successful recitals and made fine recordings. Her last appearance was in 1946, sharing the performance with her close friend Margarete Klose . In later years she turned to opera direction, the most important achievement was a production of Tristan und Isolde in 1947, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler.