RICHARD STRAUSS: COMPLETE OPERAS
Int. Release 03 Feb. 2014
Download 479 2274 2 | 33 CD Box
Arabella • Ariadne auf Naxos • Capriccio
Daphne • Elektra • Feuersnot
Die Frau ohne Schatten • Die schweigsame Frau
THE OPERAS OF RICHARD STRAUSS
Richard Strauss was steeped in opera – his father Franz played first horn in the world premieres of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Meistersinger, Rheingold and Walküre at the Munich Court Opera. But Franz Strauss didn’t care for Wagner’s music: hisidols were the Viennese classics, especially Mozart.
In his early teens, Richard followed his father’s lineon Wagner, but the discovery of Tristan at the ageof 17 was an epiphany. His father was predictablyfurious when he heard it being played on the familypiano. But Strauss father and son did share a passionfor Mozart, and one of the first operas Richard conducted was Così fan tutte, a work usually considered marginal at the time. It became one of Strauss’s two favourite operas, alongside Tristan, and Mozart and Wagner stood at the head of his musical pantheon. (He was less convinced by Italian opera: in 1886 he dismissed Verdi’s Aida as Indianermusik– “American Indian music” – and didn’t think much better of Rossini’s Barbiere di Siviglia.) He rapidly gained experience as an opera conductor, and among his early successes was the worldpremiere of Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel in Weimaron 23 December 1893 – by which time he hadstarted composing an opera of his own.
Although not quite 30, Strauss already had a reputation as a composer of brilliant orchestral works when Guntram was given in Weimar on 10 May 1894 (Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung and Macbeth had been introduced in 1889–90), and he was also emerging as one of the leading song composers of his generation. With his gifts as an orchestrator, and early lieder that included Zueignung and Allerseelen, a move towards opera must have seemed natural. It was the composer Alexander Ritter (1833–1896) who encouraged Strauss to try his hand at composing an opera – in spite of Strauss’s apprehension in the face of Wagner’s achievements.
Guntram is Wagnerian in its plot and in Strauss’s decision to write his own libretto. Though the Prelude to Act I was performed by Mahler (in Vienna and in New York), the opera was never a success. On a personal level Strauss could celebrate the triumph scored by Pauline de Ahna in the role of Freihild (they married a few months later), but, as he recalled in 1942, his first opera “vanished completely from the stage, and with it disappeared for the next six years my courage in writing for the theatre”. However, Strauss thought well enough of Guntram to quote from it more extensively than from any other composition in the “Hero’s Works of Peace” section of Ein Heldenleben.
Feuersnot marked a move away from the influence of Wagner as Strauss attempted to fashion new operatic forms. It is no accident that, of his 15 operas, 10 have subtitles that qualify the genre in some way – from the “Singgedicht” (“sung poem”) of Feuersnot to the “Konversationsstück für Musik” (“conversation piece for music”) of Capriccio. Judged by its score, especially the closing love scene, the neglect of Feuersnot is difficult to understand. It was the first of Strauss’s operas to be given its premiere in Dresden, conducted by Ernst von Schuch (1846–1914) on 21 November 1901. Schuch went on to introduce Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier to the world, and after his death five further Strauss operas were first staged in Dresden. Feuersnot was a success there, but problems arose when the opera reached Berlin in 1902. The Empress Augusta was outraged by its erotic themes and stalked out of the royal box midway through a performance. Her husband, Kaiser Wilhelm II, promptly banned it in Berlin.
But, if Feuersnot had shocked royal sensibilities, it was nothing compared to the seismic impact of Salome four years later. The Dresden premiere, on 9 December 1905, instantly established Strauss as one of the leading operatic composers of his day. Salome was the only opera to which Strauss gave the Wagnerian subtitle “Musikdrama”. On Good Friday 1905, Cosima Wagner asked him to play her some of the opera while she was in Berlin. Strauss reluctantly agreed, and played the final scene at the piano. The Widow of Bayreuth was horrified: “It’s absolute madness!” Strauss described the title role as a “16-year-old princess with the voice of Isolde”, and Marie Wittich (a noted Isolde) was appalled by what she was asked to do on stage during rehearsals for the premiere. She flatly refused to perform the Dance of the Seven Veils (a dancer took her place), or to kiss the severed head of John the Baptist, declaring: “I won’t do it. I’m a respectable woman!”
Despite scandalizing many critics, Salome was soon staged in most major European opera houses. It opened at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, on 22 January 1907 – only to be banned by the directors of the company after just one performance (it wasn’t heard again at the Met until 1934). Putting scandal aside, progressive musicians found much to praise. Mahler called Salome “one of the greatest masterpieces of our time”, adding that Strauss was “a volcano, a subterranean fire – not just a fireworks display”.
Elektra was Strauss’s first collaboration with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and, like Salome it was cast in a single act. Strauss saw Hofmannsthal’s version of Sophocles’ play (produced by Max Reinhardt in 1903) and immediately asked him to adapt it as a libretto. Work began in 1906 but Strauss toiled over the score for two years. The result is a work of even more concentrated savagery than Salome. The music of Elektra has a pulverizing energy and a gleaming, manic ecstasy that culminates in Elektra’s crazed dance of triumph in the final scene.
Strauss’s next collaboration with Hofmannsthal was a very different venture. Der Rosenkavalier is a “Komödie für Musik” set in 18th-century Vienna duringthe reign of Maria Theresia. The premiere, with sets by Alfred Roller, took place in Dresden on 26 January 1911 and it was a triumph. Fifty sold-out performances were given in the Saxon capital within the year, and special “Rosenkavalier Trains” brought audiences from Berlin to hear it. A few critics grumbled that too much of the score was in 3/4 time, and that it marked a retreat from the modernism of Salome and Elektra, but Strauss and Hofmannsthal were acclaimed as the new Mozart and Da Ponte – a comparison that delighted Strauss, who regarded Rosenkavalier as his “Mozart” opera (with specific resonances of Figaro). It was the crowning success of his career – and its final scene was played at his funeral, conducted by the young Georg Solti.
Ariadne auf Naxos was conceived as a companion piece for Hofmannsthal’s version of Molière’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (with incidental music by Strauss), directed by Max Reinhardt. This long evening, presenting a hybrid of stage play and opera, was given at the Königliches Hoftheater at Stuttgart on 25 October 1912, conducted by Strauss. It didn’t convince audiences, and four years later Strauss and Hofmannsthal produced a new version of Ariadne (without the play, and with the addition of the Prologue). This was first heard in Vienna on 4 October 1916, conducted by Franz Schalk with a cast that included Lotte Lehmann as the Composer, Maria Jeritza as Ariadne and Selma Kurz as Zerbinetta. Scored for a small orchestra, Ariadne includes some of Strauss’s most lyrical, intimate and restrained music (for example, Ariadne’s “Es gibt ein Reich” and the trio for the three Nymphs), contrasting with the spectacular coloratura writing for Zerbinetta and the notoriously taxing tenor role of Bacchus.
After the chamber-music texture of Ariadne, Strauss used the largest performing forces for any of his operas in Die Frau ohne Schatten. The enormous orchestra includes eight horns (four of them doubling Wagner tubas), a total of 10 trumpets (including those in the stage band), two celestas, and such exotic extras as basset horn, glass harmonica, five Chinese gongs, four tam-tams and wind- and thunder-machines. The first of a triptych of operas with marriage as the central theme (the others are Intermezzo and Die ägyptische Helena), it is based on a fairy tale by Hofmannsthal, rich in symbolism. Just as Rosenkavalier had echoes of Mozart’s Figaro, so Frau ohne Schatten seemed to mirror Die Zauberflöte, with its two sharply contrasted couples inhabiting different worlds (Strauss was particularly inspired by the parallels he saw between Barak the Dyer and his Wife, with his own marriage to Pauline).
The first performance was given in Vienna on 10 October 1919 under Franz Schalk, with a cast led by Maria Jeritza as the Empress and Lotte Lehmann as the Dyer’s Wife. Strauss wrote to Hofmannsthal that it would be his “last Romantic opera”. Now, he wanted to try something different: a “modern, completely realistic opera”.
The result was an inimitably Straussian kind of Zeitoper. Working as his own librettist – and staying with the theme of marriage – Intermezzo (a “bourgeois comedy with symphonic interludes”) is based on an episode in Strauss’s home life. An unusual combination of recitative-like vocal writing and sumptuous orchestral interludes, it was first performed in Dresden on 4 November 1924, conducted by Fritz Busch.
Storch (Strauss) was played by Joseph Correck, and his wife Christine (Pauline) by Lotte Lehmann. Among the opera’s early admirers was Arnold Schoenberg, and two decades later he still considered it one of Strauss’s most inventive operas: “Though I do not admire all of his works I believe that he will remain one of the characteristic and outstanding figures in musical history. Works like Salome, Elektra, Intermezzo and others will not perish.”
Die ägyptische Helena abounds in bizarre elements: an omniscient singing sea-shell (illustrated on the cover of the vocal score), magical lotus juice, Helen of Troy enjoying a sojourn at an oasis in the Atlas mountains, and four meddling Elves. If this all raises a smile, it’s meant to: Die ägyptische Helena was initially planned by Strauss and Hofmannsthal as a comic operetta – a kind of modern Belle Hélène. However, the work becomes increasingly serious, and it ends with a moving affirmation of marital fidelity. The role of Helen is one of the composer’s most flamboyant female leads, and the Strauss expert Bryan Gilliam has described the opera as his “first and only bel canto work”. The premiere was given in Dresden on 6 June 1928: Fritz Busch conducted, and Elisabeth Rethberg sang the title role – Strauss had written it for Maria Jeritza, but the Dresden company considered her fee to be exorbitant (she later sang it at the Met).
There was one last Strauss–Hofmannsthal collaboration: the “lyric comedy” Arabella – the closest they came to revisiting the world of Rosenkavalier, though this time the setting is Vienna in the 1860s. Hofmannsthal had died in July 1929 with Arabella still unrevised. Though Strauss felt the need for cuts, he set Hofmannsthal’s text as it stood, out of respect for his collaborator. The music is bittersweet, nostalgic, and occasionally coloured by Croatian folk tunes. Despite its dramatic imperfections, Arabella has been revived more often than most of Strauss’s later operas, largely thanks to the allure of its title role, created by Viorica Ursuleac in Dresden on 1 July 1933, conducted by her future husband, Clemens Krauss.
After Hofmannsthal’s death, Strauss was a composer in search of a librettist. Though he had not met Stefan Zweig, he approached him to write a libretto for his next opera. Zweig chose a comedy by Ben Jonson (Epicoene, or The Silent Woman from 1609). Strauss’s collaboration with a Jewish librettist – especially one to whom he denounced the Nazis in a letter shortly before the premiere – was an audacious move in the early years of Hitler’s Germany. The original production of Die schweigsame Frau opened in Dresden on 24 June 1935, conducted by Karl Böhm, but the discovery of Strauss’s inflammatory letter to Zweig attracted the unwelcome attention of the Gestapo, and after four performances the opera was banned.
Strauss had intended to write a comedy, and Zweig supplied him with a witty libretto, but the score has moments of pathos – even sadness – that perhaps hint at the circumstances of its composition. The author had been forced to flee to England in 1934, though not before giving Strauss at least two further ideas for operas that became the starting point for Friedenstag and Capriccio.
Friedenstag is a curiosity, but an intriguing one given the circumstances of its composition. Strauss was prevented by Nazi anti-Semitism from working again with Stefan Zweig (who also ruled himself out of future collaborations while the Nazis were in power); but, though the libretto of Friedenstag was written by Joseph Gregor, the idea had come from Zweig. Strauss finished the score in June 1936 and the first performance was given in Munich on 24 July 1938, conducted by Clemens Krauss, with Viorica Ursuleac as Maria (Strauss dedicated it to the two of them) and Hans Hotter as her husband, the Commandant of a besieged Catholic town in Germany on the last day of the Thirty Years War. Cast in one act, it is the shortest of Strauss’s operas, and its most stirring music comes near the end, with a grand choral hymn to peace.
With Daphne (a “bucolic tragedy” in one act, to a libretto by Joseph Gregor) Strauss returned to mythology. It was a work he cherished, and apparently it was Pauline’s favourite among all his operas. Weeks before his death, when he was asked by a visiting film crew to play something of his own choosing on the piano, he gave them the closing pages of Daphne. This is music of heart-stopping beauty, depicting the transformation of Daphne into a tree – but it is also a startlingly original conception, as Daphne’s voice gives way to instruments before soaring wordlessly over the orchestra. One of Strauss’s most magical scores, Daphne was first performed on 15 October 1938 in Dresden, conducted by Karl Böhm, to whom the opera is dedicated.
Die Liebe der Danae was completed in 1940, described as a tale of “merry mythology” on a libretto by Joseph Gregor (using an idea Strauss had been given by Hofmannsthal in 1920). The opera had a difficult start: Strauss struggled for four years over its composition, and once it was finished he was reluctant to let it be performed during wartime. Eventually he relented and Clemens Krauss conducted the dress rehearsal at the Salzburg Festival on 16 August 1944, after which a tearful Strauss told members of the Vienna Philharmonic: “Perhaps we shall meet again in a better world.” The public stage premiere was given eight years later, on 14 August 1952, again at Salzburg. This patchy early performance history should not obscure the quality of the music. Strauss scholar Michael Kennedy has written that “the treatment of the many themes and motifs is amazingly inventive, the orchestral colours glow and shine – with Greek gold and Mediterranean sunlight”, adding that “its third act alone lifts it into the category of first-rank Strauss”.
Capriccio was Strauss’s last completed opera, first per formed in Munich on 28 October 1942. Described as a “conversation piece for music”, it has a libretto by the composer and Clemens Krauss (though, as with Friedenstag, the conception had been Stefan Zweig’s). As the subtitle suggests, this is an opera that relies not on conventional action but on a light-hearted exploration of the relative importance of words and music. Strauss himself was in no doubt that they were equals, and wrote in his preface to the opera: “A faithful interpretation of music and words alike and congenial improvisation are ‘brother and sister’, just like word and sound.” Perhaps the balance is not quite as even-handed as Strauss implies: the sublime string sextet that opens Capriccio and the radiant final scene – Strauss’s farewell to the operatic stage – surely suggest that music might ultimately triumph.