Botstein, ASO make a concerted case for Strauss’s neglected “Feuersnot”
Richard Strauss’s one-act opera Feuersnot, premiered in Dresden in 1901 and the second of his many stage works (Guntram, the first, flopped in 1894) is very rarely staged. But a splendid Carnegie Hall concert performance Sunday made a strong case for the odd, folkish but also semi-autographical piece as occasional programming for a fine orchestra.
Leon Botstein is sometimes rightly more praised for his wide-questing looks at forgotten or underrated music than for the actual performances he gets out of his American Symphony Orchestra. But this afternoon marked a happy exception: Botstein kept the huge, brass-heavy orchestra and vast choral forces (James Bagwell’s full-voiced Collegiate Chorale and Michelle Oesterle’s skilled Manhattan Girls Chorus, who executed some difficult music commendably) in proper balance with the fifteen (!) solo singers, who spread out almost across the stage.
The rather silly and contrived libretto (termed a “stage poem”) by Ernst von Wolzogen has surely kept the work from traveling too far beyond Munich, where it gets trotted out as a curiosity during all-Strauss marathons. Gustav Mahler brought it to Vienna in 1902-05, and it briefly returned there in the twenties. Alexander Smallens led the U.S. premiere at Philadelphia’s Metropolitan Opera in 1927; in recent decades only Manhattan School of Music (1985) and Santa Fe Opera (1988) among American companies have staged it, both outings under Strauss devotee John Crosby.
Playing on a Flemish medieval custom concerning dousing fires, Feuersnot (Need-of Fire) takes place in a Bavarian town near Munich in which the mayor, various merchants and the children prepare for the solstice. The very names of the characters—Ortolf Sentliger the mayor, Kunz Gilgenstock the brewer and baker, Hämerlein the grocer (a part sung by Nelson Eddy, no less, in Smallens’ Philadelphia production)—suggest a parody of the guild names in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, to which this work makes several references, musical and textual.
In the character of the young alchemist Kunrad, whose furtive, strange ways puzzle the villagers, Strauss sought to portray himself. Kunrad takes revenge on the village for having driven out his innovative sorcerer master Reichart (read: Wagner) by returning, occupying his house and using his powers to quell all the fires and lights in securing for himself the mayor’s lovely daughter Diemut. Only—it’s a comedy, if a hearty peasant-ish one rather than a witty, elegant one—Diemut snags him, capturing him in a basket in mid-air before reeling him up to her window for what we can only surmise is premarital sex.
After a joyous if windy ensemble by everyone else, we hear the leads (lirico-spinto soprano and high baritone, like Strauss’s later Arabella and Mandryka) in an innocent, punch-drunk duet like that of Rosenkavalier’s young lovers (but without the orchestral mocking). Is Diemut then Munich, redeemed in gender-reverse Wagnerian fashion by Kunrad’s love?
Best just to enjoy the music, which though in some ways marked by almost Brahmsian folk tunes, features little foreshadowings (in the brass writing, especially) of Salome and Die Frau ohne Schatten) and even glimmerings of the autumnal glow of the composer’s last works. The ASO string section rose to the considerable workout the 95-minute score poses. One can envision the Cleveland, Philadelphia or Boston exploring this work with fine results in their on-and-off commitment to concert opera.
Vocally, the work lives or dies with its two lead soloists, but in general the singing was at a high level (though several artists, younger and older, needed sharper German). The first Diemut, Annie Krull, went on to create Elektra eight years later; one imagines she had a more mettlesome instrument than that of Jacquelyn Wagner, but to her credit the tall, attractive Michigan-born soprano was never swamped by the orchestra and showed knowing style and an admirably even scale from top to bottom. Her clear top voice soared into the hall.
There were also roars of applause for Alfred Walker, a bass-baritone long familiar in tiny Met comprimario parts. He sounded splendid and tireless in very tough, long-lined music: Kunrad’s peroration explaining his background must be the longest male solo in any Strauss opera. Kudos to Botstein for showing the Met what it has in Walker, certainly worthy of their entrusting with major roles. Most notable among the other townsfolk were dusky-voiced mezzo Cynthia Hanna (Wigelis), clear high sopranos Micaëla Oeste (Margret) and Marie Mascari (Walpurg), bright, ringing tenor Adam Bielamowicz, (Ortlieb), dark, trenchant baritone Chad Armstrong (Kofel) and lively bass Branch Fields (Pöschel), whose every utterance conveyed a character.