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Clearly, Ernst Krenek and Richard Strauss were two composers who relished a challenge.
That was obvious from the concert performance Wednesday night of two one-act operas, Krenek’s Der Diktator and Strauss’s Friedenstag, by the American Symphony Orchestra led by Leon Botstein in Carnegie Hall.
In operas such as Der Diktator and the better-known Jonny spielt auf, Krenek attempted nothing less than turning an entertainment medium into a vehicle for bitter satire.
For his part, with a career built on shocking the public, Strauss seems to have concluded that the most shocking thing he could do in 1938 was to compose a resplendent hymn to peace as his country, Nazi-dominated Germany, hurtled toward war.
With a protagonist modeled on Mussolini, Krenek composed an opera ripped from the headlines of 1926. With a libretto set at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the politically naïve Strauss composed in 1938 as if the headlines didn’t exist.
With just four characters, Krenek’s opera sketched its dramatic action and made its dark point in just about 35 minutes. With 14 characters and a chorus representing townspeople and two armies, Strauss’s tableau of war’s depredations and the joy of peace took an hour and a half to unfold.
If the above reads a little like a compare-and-contrast essay for a music-history class, one can thank conductor and Bard College president Botstein, who even more than most music directors selects his material to make a point.
And as the conductor noted in a program essay, it didn’t hurt that the political headlines of 2016, in the U.S. and abroad, are conspiring to make the two operas—Der Diktator in particular—especially resonant at this moment. One doesn’t have to look far to find narcissistic political figures leaving a train of human wreckage in their wake.
Krenek’s libretto, which he wrote himself, finds the character known only as The Dictator plotting yet another war, over the objections of his long-suffering wife Charlotte, while wooing the young Maria, whose husband, The Officer, was blinded during a gas attack in one of the Dictator’s previous wars.
Maria and the Officer are, of course, stand-ins for the people of the Dictator’s country, who fight and die to satisfy his grandiose fantasies, yet are also seduced by his strange charisma. At the opera’s sudden, violent climax, Maria is shot and killed while foiling the assassination of the Dictator—by his wife.
Stout of frame and voice, baritone Donnie Ray Albert embodied the Dictator’s arrogance and brute power, while also hinting at the pain and insecurity under his chest-thumping, lascivious exterior.
Sopranos Ilana Davidson and Karen Chia-Ling Ho sang expressively as Charlotte and Marie respectively, although one wondered if the casting shouldn’t have been switched, with the potent-voiced Ho as the Dictator’s sturdy antagonist and the lighter-toned Davidson as the vulnerable young wife, instead of the other way around.
Tenor Mark Duffin made a strong impression as the Officer, holding his military bearing despite his wounds, retelling the battle in which he was blinded (amid Britten-like booms and whizzing bombs in Krenek’s score), and closing the opera with agonized cries for his wife, who he doesn’t know is dead.
Although Krenek’s hard-edged orchestral sound called for a crispness of execution that wasn’t quite there Wednesday night, Botstein supported the singers well and conveyed the composer’s intentions clearly.
After Krenek’s piece, which was almost an anti-opera (imagine Verdi setting the words “I will kill him” on a decrescendo!), one could look forward to some old-fashioned Straussian fun in Friedenstag (Day of Peace). And indeed, one returned from intermission to find the orchestra doubled in size and the few remaining square feet of Carnegie’s stage filling up with choristers.
Unfortunately for this opera and its subsequent career (or lack thereof), these formidable forces and Strauss’s skill at deploying them were placed at the service of a nearly static libretto by Joseph Gregor, an esteemed scholar but inexperienced dramatist, whose main virtue in the eyes of the Nazi regime was that he wasn’t Jewish.
In place of the rich stew of characters and motives typical of Strauss’s other operas, the “plot” of Friedenstag revolved around a single question: Would the Commandant of a besieged city surrender it to the enemy, saving soldiers’ lives and bringing relief to its starving people, or would he cling to his orders from the Emperor and never permit the enemy to take the city, even if that meant destroying it and everyone in it?
In Wednesday’s performance, there was considerable suspense around the lighting of the fuse to blow up the city, cranked up as only Strauss can, but in the end a declaration of peace saved the city, and a lengthy, Beethovenesque celebration ensued.
Baritone Albert returned to the stage as the Commandant, reminding onlookers that the arrogance of power and egotism and the arrogance of righteousness, though different in kind, can be equally destructive. The brittleness of his voice toward the end, no doubt brought on by a long night of forceful singing, nevertheless suited his character’s inflexible attitude.
In this very male drama of soldiers and town officials, eleven tenors and basses shared the solo roles. Besides Albert, standouts in a strong cast included bass Ricardo Lugo doubling as a stoical Sergeant and the enemy Holsteiner commander in the final confrontation with the Commandant, tenor Doug Jones as a boyish Corporal, bass-baritone Carsten Wittmoser as a cynical Musketeer, and tenor Scott Joiner as the Piedmontese, a messenger from Italy and recipient of the chorus’s memorable question, “Say, is there peace in your homeland? What do people live on, if not on soldier’s pay?”
Soprano Rachel Rosales had a brief but impassioned appearance as the Woman of the People protesting the war and its hardships. The Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell, represented soldiers and starving people with heart and clear diction.
Of course, no Strauss opera would be complete without a spectacular role for soprano, and so the men’s debates paused for a lengthy soliloquy by the Commandant’s wife Maria, expressing her love for the people of the city, bemoaning their present misery and her husband’s long absences, and calling for the sun of peace to shine on the city again. Eventually, it was Maria who confronted the Commandant for his self-righteousness in an extended duet, and intervened between the two hostile commanders to save the peace and the celebrations thereof.
All of that required soprano power of Straussian proportions, supplied Wednesday on short notice by Kirsten Chambers, substituting for the ailing Tamara Wilson. Although the role of soprano-in-waiting is evidently one of Chambers’s specialties—her program biography said she covers major Wagner roles for the Met—no one could be expected to have this unusual item in their repertoire, and so her vigorous delivery of Strauss’s long, complex part on Wednesday must be considered a rare feat of quick study and preparation.
Although in the last pages the barrage of high notes took their toll, at the bows Chambers looked both relieved and delighted at how she’d pulled it off, and she deserved to be.
The orchestra, especially the brass, had a good Straussian night, and Botstein saw to it that the singers, some of whom didn’t have the biggest voices in town, weren’t drowned out.
The result was a fair and enthusiastic rendering of Strauss’s hymn to peace, orphaned first by the Nazi war machine, then by opera directors and audiences who preferred his other works. It and the Krenek were well worth a revival, especially in these uneasy political times.
The next program of the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, titled “Bernstein and the Bostonians,” will take place November 18. americansymphony.org; 212-868- 9276.
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