A Rare View of Strauss in a Very Devilish Mood

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim 

The musicologist and conductor Leon Botstein has made a career out of championing works that have been overlooked or neglected. On Sunday afternoon at Carnegie Hall, he conducted a rarely performed one-act comic opera by Richard Strauss, “Feuersnot” (“In Need of Fire”), written 1900-01 as an indictment of Munich and what he saw as the provincialism of its inhabitants — a narrow-mindedness, he felt, that stood in the way of their appreciating both Wagner’s and his own genius.

The American Symphony Orchestra, the Collegiate Chorale, the Manhattan Girls Chorus and a large cast of terrific soloists offered an enjoyable performance of a work that is by and large entertaining. But they did not persuade me of any pressing need to add “Feuersnot” to the repertory.

The story is set “in the distant past” on the outskirts of Munich where villagers prepare to light bonfires to mark the summer solstice. The mysterious Kunrad steals a kiss from the mayor’s daughter, Diemut. Offended, she devises a way to ridicule him in public. In revenge, he extinguishes all the fires in the village, reveals himself as the heir of a certain master sorcerer, “Reichart der Wagner,” and declares that only a virgin’s love will make him rekindle the fires.

Egged on by the impatient townspeople, Diemut concedes, and the following orchestral interlude marks her deflowering with a climax every bit as graphic as a bloodstained sheet. The villagers cheer, and Diemut and Kunrad emerge professing ecstatic love.

In the pun-riddled libretto by Ernst von Wolzogen (a satirist and cabaret figure), all this is expressed in a mixture of Bavarian dialect (poorly rendered by this American cast) and that easily lampooned hodgepodge of alliteration and pseudo-archaic German of Wagner’s own librettos. “Maja maja mia mö,” sings the (excellent) children’s chorus over and over like a kindergarten of Valkyries in training.

Strauss shared Wolzogen’s disdain for the hysteria of the Wagner cult and retained a very turn-of-the-20th-century skepticism toward its transcendental aspirations. But as a composer, he kept his nose deep in Wagner’s pharmacopoeia. In “Feursnot,” Strauss used pastiche as a means to artistic self-discovery with results that range from over the top to all over the place.

Wagner-style “endless melodies” swell and pull back to harp-and-flute-sprinkled pianissimos, only to surge forward again, horns leading the charge. The orchestra played with them relish and a luscious sound. But there are also a couple of waltzes that prefigure Strauss’s “Rosenkavalier,” and Mr. Botstein shaped them with snarky panache.

The fluid way Strauss weaves solos, ensembles and choral passages into the score show him in full command of his technique. But the comic pacing grinds to a halt for Kunrad’s harangue, at over 100 lines a monologue of tedious length, with heavy-handed puns on Wagner’s and Strauss’s names only adding pomposity. Alfred Walker sang the part with a lean and powerful bass-baritone.

The soprano Jacquelyn Wagner brought a lovely clean and focused sound to the part of Diemut that effortlessly penetrated the rich orchestral score. Among the well-cast lesser roles, the soprano Micaëla Oeste and the mezzos Brenda Patterson and Cynthia Hanna stood out as Diemut’s gossipy girlfriends.