By Leslie Kandell
NEW YORK – “Enjoy yourself. This won’t happen again in your lifetime,” Leon Botstein told the audience at his pre-concert talk on Sunday afternoon, Dec. 15. He was about to conduct Richard Strauss’ rarely heard opera Feuersnot at Carnegie Hall, but followers of Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra – more of them with each concert – knew he could be talking about most of his programs.
Botstein has a genius for finding substantial pieces you never heard of and can’t wait to hear when he tells you about them but could do without hearing again. Twenty years into Botstein’s music directorship (his day job is the presidency of Bard College), audiences have figured out that they will hear something for the first time, and maybe the last, and receive an explanation. That and the large number of $25 seats now nearly sells out Carnegie Hall.
Provocatively, Botstein began his talk by discussing why Strauss’ second opera, a single 90-minute act, is so rarely staged. It’s too short to carry an entire program the way that Salome and Elektra can, he said. But it’s too long to be paired, like Cav and Pag, and too provincially German, though of huge interest harmonically. Ernst von Wolzogen, the humorist who wrote the libretto, called it a sung poem.
Feuersnot (“In Need of Fire”) takes place at summer solstice – a medieval midsummer night but not necessarily a dream. The comic plot is about the handsome Kunrad, who has a few magical powers but comes on too fast to the mayor’s daughter, Diemut, kissing her in public. To avenge the insult, she plays a trick on him involving a hoisted basket, à la Falstaff.
Humiliated, he strikes back, using his limited magic to prevent the town from making fire, thereby depriving righteous, opinionated burghers of light and heat. (Contemporary audiences can relate to power failures, and in this opera fire is also a metaphor for passion.) Townspeople stop gossiping about the girl’s reputation and beg her to accept his advances. When she does, the couple and everyone else are ecstatic.
Strauss thought deeply about Mozart, Schubert, and Wagner, but he knew who he was early on. Three seconds into the prelude, a swelling Strauss chord lets us know that we can’t be listening to anyone else. Feuersnot inhabits the tone world of Der Rosenkavalier, in harmony and in seductive waltzes (some a bit sappy). Snatches of Mozart and Wagner are heard throughout, along with pokes at Schubert, but the music is bedrock Strauss.
Such good voices! Botstein may be a successor to Eve Queler, who, with her Opera Orchestra of New York, uncovered obscure repertoire and introduced soloists who then went – sometimes directly – to the Metropolitan Opera. It was Queler who brought out Guntram, Strauss’ first opera.
The quality of the 75-member orchestra pulls steadily upward, giving a lift to Botstein’s conducting, and the ensemble of a dozen soloists was good. As Diemut, Jacquelyn Wagner, an American Strauss/Mozart-type soprano based in Berlin, was more than good. She has regional (upcoming Arabella at the Minnesota Opera) and European credits, and has performed major Mozart roles. Perched on those high notes, she let them sail over all. Hear her: She’ll be coming your way.
Alfred Walker is a Wagner/Verdi bass-baritone who has sung in Satyagraha at the Met, Parsifal in Basel, and Elektra at La Scala. Unfortunately, there was no chemistry between the lovers. True, this was not a staged production, but did they have to ignore each other? Singing red-hot soliloquies and passionate duets with impassive faces, they never even gave each other a peek. Their kiss? Forget it.
So-called “girlfriends,” simpering like three little girls from school and sounding like Rhine Maidens, were charming; the townsmen were robust and satisfying. Members of the Collegiate Chorale formed the chorus, and the remarkable year-old, inner-city Manhattan Girls Chorus, founded by its conductor, Michelle Oesterle, sang hefty two-part passages in German and in tune.
Librettos, and enough light to see them, was a lovely idea despite some bad translations (“Hubba hubba.” Must we?). And no doggerel should be rendered as “Inka dinka do.” For Jimmy Durante fans, that is sacrosanct. Surprising imagery, considering Strauss’ propriety and lifestyle, included “When a priest lets his wind loose, he sniffs it just like any dog.” (Well, Wolzogen was a humorist and Strauss, like Schubert, was erratic about lyrics.)
Kunrad’s sizable soliloquy near the end paralleled Wotan’s telling Brünnhilde the whole family history before (or while) putting her to sleep. Walker, whose résumé includes Porgy, has a nifty Wotan somewhere in his future.
Botstein compared chances of hearing Feuersnot again – zero – to Hanukkah coinciding with Thanksgiving. Neither is a safe bet.
Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, MusicalAmerica.com, Musical America Directory, and several publications in Western Massachusetts. She can be seen in the September issue of Inside Southern Berkshire.