The myth of Ariadne deserted by Theseus on the island of Naxos has attracted composers from Claudio Monteverdi to Richard Strauss. Ariadne fell in love with Theseus who succeeded in killing the Minotaur – the half-bull, half-man that was kept in a labyrinth by Ariadne’s father, the legendary Cretan king Minos. Ariadne gave Theseus a ball of thread to help him find his way back out of the labyrinth, thus saving his life. The pair then set off together to his home-land Attica, but he abandoned her on the way.
The author of the particular text Haydn chose to set to music in his Italian cantata ‘Arianna a Naxos’ is unknown. Alternating recitative and aria, Haydn creates four distinctive sections.
Teseo mio ben! Ove sei tu?
Theseus, my dear! Where are you?
Vicino d’averti mi parea,
It seems as if you were near to me,
ma un lusinghiero sogno fallace m’ingannò.
But an alluring, false dream deceives me.
Già sorge in ciel la rosea Aurora
Already rosy Aurora is rising in the sky
e l’erbe e i fior colora Febo
and Phoebus colours the grass and flowers,
uscendo dal mar col crine aurato.
rising from the sea with his golden hair.
Sposo adorato, dove guidasti il piè?
My adored husband, where have you gone?
Forse le fere ad inseguir ti chiama il tuo nobile ardor.
Perhaps your noble passion called you to hunt wild beasts!
Ah vieni, o caro
Oh come my darling,
Ed offrirò più grata preda a tuoi lacci.
And I will offer your snares more satisfying prey.
Il cor d’Arianna amante, che t’adora costante,
Hold on to loving Arianna’s heart that constantly adores you,
stringi con nodo più tenace
with a tighter knot,
e più bella la face splenda del nostro amor.
And let the light of our love shine more beautifully
Soffrir non posso
I cannot bear
d’esser da te diviso un sol momento.
to be separated from you for a single moment.
Ah di vederti, o caro, già mi stringe il desio.
Oh, my dear one, I long to see you.
Ti sospira il mio cor.
My heart sighs for you.
Vieni, idol mio.
Come, my idol.
Dove sei, mio bel tesoro?
Where are you my beautiful treasure?
Chi t’invola a questo cor?
Who stole you from this heart?
Se non vieni, io già mi moro,
If you don’t come, death is already mine,
Nè resisto al mio dolor.
Nor do I resist my grief.
Se pietade avete, oh Dei,
If you have pity, oh Gods,
Secondate i voti miei,
fulfill my prayers,
a me torni il caro ben.
So that my love will come back.
Dove sei? Teseo!
Where are you? Theseus!
Ma, a chi parlo?
But to whom am I speaking?
Gli accenti Eco ripete sol.
Only Echo repeats my words.
Teseo non m’ode,
Theseus cannot hear me
Teseo non mi risponde,
Theseus does not answer me,
e portano le voci e l’aure e l’onde.
And my voice is carried away by the wind and the waves.
Poco da me lontano esser egli dovria.
He must not be far away from me.
Salgasi quello che più d’ogni altro s’alza alpestre scoglio,
If I mount that highest cliff
ivi lo scoprirò.
I will see him.
Chemiro? Oh stele! Misera me!
What do I see? Oh stars! Poor me!
Quest’ è l’Argivo legno!
This is the wooden Argosy!
Greci son quelli!
Those men are Greeks!
Teseo! Ei sulla prora!
Theseus! He is on the bow!
ah, m’inganasse almen…
Oh, if only I were mistaken…
no, no, non m’inganno.
No, no, I am not mistaken.
Ei fugge, ei qui mi lascia in abbandono.
He flees, he leaves me here, abandoned.
Più speranza non v’è,
There is no hope,
tradita io sono.
I have been betrayed.
Theseus! Listen to me!
Teseo! Ma oimè, vaneggio!
Theseus! But alas, I shall go mad!
I flutti e il vento lo involano per sempre agli occhi miei.
The waves and the wind steal him forever from my eyes.
Ah siete in guiti o Dei
Oh, you are unjust, Gods,
se l’empio non punite!
if you don’t punish the betrayer!
Ingrato! Perchè ti trassi dlla morte?
Ungrateful man! Why did I save you from death?
Dunque tu dovevi tradirmi?
So you had to betray me?
E le promesse?
And your promises?
Ei giuramenti tuoi?
And your oaths?
Liar! Unfaithful one!
Hai cor di lasciarmi?
You have the courage to leave me?
A chi mi volgo?
To whom shall I turn?
Da chi pieta sperar?
From whom can I hope for pity?
Già più non reggo,
Already I am weakening,
il piè vacilla,
my feet are unsteady,
e in così amaro istante
and in this bitter moment
sento mancar mi in sen l’alma tremante.
I feel that the trembling soul in my bosom is leaving me.
Ah, che morir vorrei in si fatal momento,
Oh, how I should like to die at such a fatal moment,
ma al mio crudel tormento
but the unjust heavens
mi serba ingiusto il ciel.
keep me in my cruel pain.
non ho chi mi consola
I have no one to console me
chi tanto amai s’invola,
The man I loved so much is fleeing,
barbaro ed infedel.
Barbarian! Faithless man!
The cantata is scored for solo voice with piano accompaniment, yet the relation to the opera genre is obvious and the various existing orchestrations, including that of Haydn’s pupil Sigismund Neukomm, are certainly defensible. In fact Haydn himself stated that he intended to orchestrate the cantata, in a letter to the English publisher Bland, though we do not have any proof that he ever did so. Haydn’s intensely emotional musical setting reflects and underlines the dramatic spririt of the text. Haydn draws our attention to every word, and the two recitatives are absolutely central to the work. The idiomatic and colourful keyboard writing with detailed dynamic markings can only have been written with a fortepiano, rather than a harpsichord, in mind.
The slow opening recitative (‘Largo e sostenuto’) in E flat major with its 18-bar piano introduction sets the scene: Ariadne gradually awakes from a deep sleep on the rocky beach of Naxos and wonders where Theseus is. The sunrise (Aurora) is beautifully illustrated by the semiquaver sextuplets in the accompaniment and Ariadne’s excitement about the idea that Theseus might have gone hunting is enforced by faster note values and dotted rhythm. The beautiful and sensous opening phrase of the following aria (‘Largo’) in B flat major reminds us of the Countess’s ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’ in Mozart’s ‘Le Nozze de Figaro’. Ariadne’s longing for Theseus increases and she begs the gods to bring him back to her. Her anxiety at his absence is expressed in the unusual modulation to A flat major before ‘se pietade avete’ and the brief move to D flat minor as the words ‘se non vieni’ are repeated for the third time. In the following recitative Ariadne realizes that her pleas are only repeated by Echo (imitated in the piano part). Her impatience grows. She reflects that Theseus cannot be far away (‘Andante’) and decides to climb the highest cliff to look for him (again illustrated in the piano interlude). She is shocked to see him on the bow of a departing ship (‘con più moto’) and becomes more and more agitated (expressed in the music by faster note values, fuller texture, shorter phrases and new musical motifs) until she almost collapses with exhaustion (‘Adagio’, again introducing new musical ideas). In the formal first part in F major (‘Larghetto’) of the final aria Ariadne seems to pull herself together to restore her dignity. In the concluding Presto in F minor, however, she openly expresses her anguish and outrage at Theseus’s betrayal. In some sources of the myth, Ariadne is rescued by Bacchus at this stage (as also in Strauss’s opera). The overwhelming F minor ending in Haydn’s cantata, however, seems to suggest that she has flung herself from the cliff.
A favourite of Haydn himself, 'Arianna a Naxos' became very popular during his lifetime. It was circulated all over Italy and greatly admired by Rossini. Lady Hamilton, a huge fan of Haydn's, sang the cantata during her visit to the Esterhazys at Eisenstadt in 1800. We also know that it was sung by Josefa (or ‘Miss Peperl’), the 16-year-old daughter of Haydn’s close friend Maria Anna von Genzinger. In a 1790 letter to his confidante Haydn writes: ‘That my favourite Arianna has been successful at Schottenhof [the Genzingers’ residence] is delightful news to me, but I recommend Miss Peperl to pronounce her words clearly, especially in the phrase ‘che tanto amai’…’ Haydn himself performed the cantata with castrato Gasparo Pacchierotti at the Ladies’ Concert Series in London. Today, ‘Arianna a Naxos’ is perhaps not as frequently performed as one might expect, but it is greatly loved by all who have studied it.