It is a cruel caprice of history indeed that one of
the most emotional moments in all of opera is orphaned from the work in which it first appeared. So moving is
Monteverdi’s music for Ariadne’s lament Lasciatemi morire (“Let me die”), it was
said that there was literally not a dry eye in the house at its first performance. It brought worldwide fame for
its composer, and the entire opera was performed again some years later in Venice. Monteverdi published the lament separately in
1623, and arranged it in five–voice madrigal form with continuo for his sixth book of madrigals. It was even set
to new words in the mouth of the Madonna in his 1640 collection Selva morale et spirituale (“Moral
Ariadne in Naxos
(Wikimedia Commons) and spiritual forest”). Alas, although Rinuccini’s libretto has survived, the score for L’Arianna itself is lost.
The opera was one of a series of spectacles and celebrations mounted for the wedding of Vincenzo’s eldest son and ducal heir Francesco, and Margherita of Savoy. It tells the story of Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, and Theseus, son of Aegeus, King of Athens. Theseus has been allowed by his father to go to Crete, one of a number of young Athenians whom Minos demands must be sacrificed annually to the half–human, half–bull Minotaur in tribute. Ariadne falls in love with Theseus and, in collusion with Daedalus, architect of the labyrinth in which the Minotaur is imprisoned, promises to save Theseus if he will take her to Athens and marry her. She gives him the ball of thread that allows him to find his way out of the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur, and the two flee.
They stop over on the way to Athens at the island of Naxos, where Theseus privately tells his companion that he will abandon Ariadne here, because the people of Athens will never accept her as queen. Venus prevents Cupid from re–kindling Theseus’s love for Ariadne; she intends instead to unite Ariadne with Bacchus, granting her immortality for the obligatory happy ending.
Monteverdi’s Ariadne experiences a host of different emotions during the course of her lament. After arriving at the shore and discovering that Theseus really has forsaken her, she keens Lasciatemi morire:
Let me die.
E chi volete voi che mi conforte
And whom should you have comfort me
in così dura sorte, in così gran martire?
in this harsh fate, in this great torture?
Let me die.
She begins to plead with Theseus to return and look upon her wretchedness, calling out to him O Teseo, O Teseo mio (“Oh Theseus, oh my Theseus”) and imploring him to turn around. Calling to him again, she repeatedly compares her plight to his, punctuated by sobs carefully characterized by rests and downward leaps. He has sailed away to be joyfully greeted by his family, while she remains alone, never to see her father or mother again.
...O Teseo, o Teseo mio,
Oh Theseus, oh my Theseus,
se tu sapessi, o Dio,
if you could know, oh God,
se tu sapessi, ohimè, come s’affanna
if you could know, ah, how suffers
la povera Arianna,
forse, forse pentito
perhaps, perhaps in sorrow
rivolgeresti ancor la prora al lito.
you would again turn your prow to [this] shore.
Ma con l’aure serene
But with serene countenance
tu te ne vai felice ed io qui piango.
you go happily and I weep.
A te prepara Attene
For you Athens prepares
liete pompe superbe, ed io rimango...
splendid celebration, and I remain...
She grows momentarily angry, demanding him to account for his broken promises
Dove, dove è la fede
Where, where is the faith
che tanto mi giuravi?
that you so sincerely promised me?
Così ne l’alta sede
Is this the exalted seat
tu mi ripon de gli avi?
of my forbears you place me on?
Son queste le corone
Are these the crowns
onde m’adorni il crine?
with which you adorn my brow?
Questi li scetri sono?
Are these the sceptres?
Queste le gemme e gli ori?
These the gems and gold?
then subsides once again with Ah Teseo, ah Teseo mio and asks if he really means to forsake her. In a rage, she invokes clouds, waves, wind and beasts of the ocean to avenge her, then suddenly realizes what she has asked and repudiates it.
Finally, she faces the harsh reality of her fate and, calling to her family and friends, beseeches them to see what fate she has come to after loving and believing too deeply.
ancor do loco a la tradita speme?
still you give place to a betrayed hope?
E non si spegne fra tanto scherno ancor
Has such mocking not yet extinguished
d’amor il foco?
the fire of love?
In his own day, Arianna was extraordinarily popular and helped to secure Monteverdi’s reputation. And it started a fashion for laments which, as with monody, became something of a mania in opera and in published songbooks for several decades. That Orfeo has survived where Arianna has not is thus all the more exasperating.