The Verbal and Visual Art of Ariadne

Opera, like ancient Greek lyric and epic, is a highly visual art capable of mesmerizing audiences with spectacles of joy, shocking humor, and the depths of grief. The current Glimmerglass production of Ariadne in Naxos sets the Ariadne myth in modern times. Below are  renderings of Bacchus and Ariadne by designer Erik Teague for this beautiful production.

Glimmerglass-DesignerErikTeague-Ariadne-Bacchus 2-2 Glimmerglass-DesignerErikTeague-Ariadne 2
 Costume renderings by Erik Teague for The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ Ariadne in Naxos.

For comparison, you might explore the 56 colored prints posted online by the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department of the Boston Public Library showing costumes and sets for the original 1912 production of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos.
Some of the most memorable passages of ancient Greek literature explore the relationship between visual and verbal art through ekphrasis. In his Imagines, Philostratus the Elder describes a supposed painting of the Ariadne myth. His words paint a remarkable picture of Dionysus, Theseus, and Ariadne.

That Theseus acted unjustly [adika] towards Ariadne–although some say not unjustly [adika], but in accordance with Dionysus–when he left her behind sleeping on the island of Dia [Naxos], you probably heard from your nurse. For those women are skilled [sophai] with respect to such things and they weep over them, whenever they want. I don’t need to say that the man on the ship is Theseus and Dionysus is the one on the land. And I would not (as if you lacked noos) turn your attention to the woman on the rocks, as she lies in gentle slumber.

Nor does it suffice to praise a painter regarding things for which another might be praised. For it is is easy for everyone to paint a beautiful Ariadne and a handsome Theseus. There are countless images [or “signs”] of Dionysus for those wanting to paint or sculpt…

But this Dionysus is represented only as a lover. Now picture this–his floral clothes, and thursoi, and fawnskins, these things have been cast aside as not appropriate and timely [kairos]. Now the Bacchai are not playing their symbols, nor do the Satyrs play the aulos. And even Pan restrains his leap, so as not to untwine sleep from the girl. Having dressed himself with a purple robe and adorned his head with roses, Dionysus comes to Ariadne’s side “intoxicated’ as the Teian poet [=Anacreon] says about those with uncontrollable desire.

Theseus is in love, but with the smoke of Athens, he neither knows Ariadne, nor did he ever know her. I would say he has forgotten even the labyrinth and could not even tell why he once sailed to Crete. In such a way does he stare at the things from his prow.

But look at Ariadne–or rather her sleep. Her breasts are bare to her navel. Her neck is back and her soft throat. And her armpit, the right one, is all visible. Her left hand lies upon her cloak, lest a breeze [anemos] shame her. What a sleep, Dionysus, and how sweet the breath! Whether it smells of apples or grapes, after making love you will tell.

 Philostratus the Elder, Imagines 1. 15