By John Yohalem
Each year, Leon Botstein leads the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert opera or two. His choices vary between two repertories: deeply obscure works or operas by Richard Strauss. On Sunday, at Carnegie Hall, the two circles of this Venn Diagram overlapped in a very rare display of Strauss’s second opera, Feuersnot(Need for Fire), in possibly its New York professional debut. Naturally, that drew quite a crowd.
Feuersnot is one of the innumerable “folk” operas that German composers—and others—felt called upon to write in the magnificent wake of Wagner’s derivations from medieval epic. Of all this music, much of it very fine, only Humperdinck’sHansel und Gretel and, perhaps, Dvorak’s Russalka entered the mainstream. Strauss had failed with his first operatic attempt, in 1894, the long and lugubriously “pious” Guntram, though he blamed the orchestra and not his own clumsy libretto for the flop.
Feuersnot, brief (one long act) but preachy, appeared in 1901, just as, thanks to his tone-poems, Strauss was ascending to the upper ranks of German composers, and at first it aroused interest. The Metropolitan Opera’s Board of Directors urged impresario Heinrich Conried to secure its American premiere, but the debacle of the Met’s Salome so outraged Strauss that he refused to have anything to do with the company for several years. Anyway, there was another game in town back then, Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera. He was awarded Salome and Elektra (both in French)—but showed no interest in Feuersnot. And, after Rosenkavalier, everyone forgot about the early piece.
The story is rather pagan than Christian. On Summer Solstice, a feast of light (with a slight nod to “Holy Hans,” John the Baptist, whose day it is, as you recall from Die Meistersinger), the people of Munich gather wood for celebratory bonfires. A local student of sorcery, Kunrad (pupil of a forgotten and disdained wizard, “Meister Reichart,” complete with Wagner quotations), pursues Diemut, the Burgomaster’s lovely daughter. She invites him into a basket (an elevator to the gallows) to reach her upstairs bedroom, then leaves him suspended over the street so everyone can laugh at his rejection. Kunrad, humiliated, puts a spell on the town that has scorned his magic: Every fire and light in town goes out. No more grilled sauerbraten!
The people entreat Diemut to save them, and she receives Kunrad through her window. (Does she really love him or does she take him out of pity? A more experienced composer/librettist would not have left this question hanging in the air.) After a suitably orchestrated interval, the bonfires burst into flame. No one in the tale is very deep, but the admirer of Strauss will notice in Diemut an early example of the sensuously blazing sopranos of his later catalogue. Kunrad’s jejune but ardent baritone may be a preview of Barak, though his self-righteousness reminds one of Jochana’an (Holy Hans) in Strauss’s next opera.
Besides these two, the biggest role in the opera belongs to the chorus of children gathering wood, rejoicing in bright lights, teasing the lovers, bewailing the dark. Theirs is a long and arduous part, one reason the opera is seldom revived. At Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Girls Chorus performed with bright sound, impressive diction and musicality, and intricately various dynamics.
Diemut was sung by Jacquelyn Wagner, a singer new to me, and I fell head over heels in love. Imagine the soaring line called for by any Strauss heroine, but, unlike so many aspirants, rooted with no audible break in a deep, stirring middle voice seemingly capable of Fricka tones. She displayed a cool, alluring sound, a natural richness of timbre, a witty way with Diemut’s bitchy jokes. (This is a very sexist opera.) Withal, she is a tall, slim, fair-haired young woman. She sings a lot of Mozart around Europe and, quite lately, her first Arabella:
Kunrad is the opera’s principal role, and Strauss composed it with his usual lack of sympathy for male singers. This bass-baritone must range high and range low, make himself heard over a Strauss orchestra, woo and denounce with fervor and, at the opera’s climax, declaim an endless sermon while the rest of the cast—and all of us—listen, abashed and respectful, to his complaint. This ungrateful part was given toAlfred Walker, whose stardom I’ve been awaiting since he was in the Met Young Artists Program at the century’s turn. Nowadays he’s singing the Dutchman from Seattle to Luxembourg, plus many an Amfortas, Hoffmann villains, Don Quichotte, Telramund and Amonasro. The voice is supple and sizable, not enormous but effective and distinct, with personality. He was not shrill once when Strauss pushed him high, and his mid-voice was pure and resonant. His diction was crisp and the words had meaning; our attention did not stray.
Walker would make a likely Alberich. He sang a flirtatious quartet with three Munich maidens that made me think, This is how Rheingold might have gone, with plenty of canoodling and no reason for theft—but then the Ring would stop right there, eh? The ladies were Brenda Patterson, Cynthia Hanna and Micaëla Oeste, foreshadowing the delicious trios in Ariadne. The brief roles of the townsfolk were all of them well cast. Many of them had names and, no doubt, personalities, but Strauss gives them little of the epigrammatic individuality he would devise for quarreling Jews at Herod’s court, serving maids in Argos, attendees at the Marschallin’s levée. In a staged performance, perhaps costume would distinguish them, but I don’t recall them from the Manhattan School of Music production thirty years ago, either. (That may have been the New York premiere of the opera; if I’m wrong, I know which website to consult for apt and severe correction.)
The typical welter of a Strauss orchestra in full cry arose pleasurably from the ASO, and the score felt shorter than its clocked ninety minutes. The music seems to be working itself up, huffing and puffing, to a climax that Feuersnot does not achieve; the Solstice consummation sounds tame after Tristan (or if one thinks of the “consummation” that would open Rosenkavalier). This is an opera full of humanity but without humans other than Diemut and her didactic lover. Botstein, in his detailed notes, points out that Mozart, not Wagner, was Strauss’s favorite composer, but Strauss’s bumptious humor seems (as it does in Rosenkavalier andArabella) a lot closer to the beat-a-dead-horse-till-it-whimpers of Meistersingerthan the airy, humane wit of Figaro or Seraglio.