|Jacquelyn Wagner and Leon Botstein|
Feuersnot is like the Richard Strauss of the tone poems invading the opera house. It’s his second opera, from 1901, a short exercise in post-Wagnerian nose-thumbing that is more a series of picaresque adventures than a grand coherent drama. But it’s got some fun music and I’m glad that the American Symphony Orchestra dusted it off at Carnegie Hall on Sunday.
The plot would seem to offer a real playground for a creative director, though this presentation was in concert. On Midsummer’s Eve in medieval Munich, the sorcerer Kunrad is spurned (and mocked) by Dietmut, the maidenly object of his affection. In return, he extinguishes all of the town’s fires (“Feuersnot”–want of fire). Dietmut is persuaded to change her mind and her deflowering provides the most lyrical Straussian music of the opera (orchestral–but rather calmer than the Rosenkavalier prelude).
That doesn’t sound like much of a plot but there’s some congenial local color of Bavarian drinking songs and local citizenry and such, and a bit of backstory too–Kunrad (AKA Strauss) is taking the place of a departed, older sorcerer (identified musically as Wagner) and is trying to figure out a new way of going about things. The story amounts to a parody of Wagnerian metaphysics: a Tristan love duet parody complete with Stabreims just before Kunrad is left hanging midair in a basket (I tell you, a staging of this opera would be a good time) and, in the finale, a redemption by love that is abrupt and really more like a redemption by lust. Strauss–and, even more importantly, librettist Ernst von Wolzogen–seem to suggest the emptiness of these idealistic Romantic gestures. It’s unclear what their replacement would be—I guess you have to wait for Salome for that—but in one act of around 95 minutes, Feuersnot does not wear out its welcome.
This early twentieth-century satire is such a perfect fit for Leon Botstein that it’s kind of surprising he hadn’t conducted it long ago. He pretty much kept it together: it’s an uneven score but some of the loud bits are rousing and the love scene has authentic Straussian Schwung. The Singspiel-like bits that portray Old München are less interesting. Most impressive in this performance was the Manhattan Girls Chorus, whose part in the score was long and complex (often involving what I presume were either old Bavarian folk songs or verses intended to sound as such). The Collegiate Chorale was also excellent. While Strauss is, I think, criticizing much of Wagner, he did seem to enjoy writing Meistersinger-like crowd scenes, too.
The soloists were also very good. As Dietmut, Jacquelyn Wagner’s even, clear soprano is ideally suited to Strauss, and her high notes were particularly strong. This can’t be an easy role and she was consistent and rock-solid throughout. As Kunrad, Alfred Walker projected well with a bass-like sound (he’s credited as a bass-baritone) that sounds like it could be impressive in Wagner, though his monologue could have benefitted from a little more variety that’s also Strauss’s fault. There are a ton of supporting roles, none of whom are given a terribly distinct musical profile (as the army of Rosenkavalier supporters are, for instance). Dietmut has a trio of Rhinemaiden-like friends and most of the professions of München are represented. Most of the singers were on point if not particularly memorable, two exceptions were Branch Field’s gruff Innkeeper and Clay Hilley’s large-voiced Baliff (given the magnificent name of Schweiker von Gundelfingen). Despite a note proclaiming that Bavarian dialect would be in use, it mostly sounded like Hochdeutsch to me.
It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s an amusing work that I was glad to hear.
Strauss, Feuersnot. American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, 12/15/13. Conducted by Leon Botstein with the Collegiate Chorale, Manhattan Girls Chorus, and many soloists.
Photos copyright Jito Lee