By Rebecca Schmid
DRESDEN, Germany – The city of Dresden, with its cobblestone streets and ornate baroque architecture – or what is left of it following the devastation of World War II – would hardly seem a hotbed for cutting-edge music. But it is here, at the turn of the 20th century, that Richard Strauss made his start as an opera composer with works, such as Salome and Elektra, that had no chance against the censors of Berlin’s conservative court.
Feuersnot, his first stage work to premiere at the Semperoper Dresden, in 1901, also included its share of scandal: By adapting a Dutch fable about an enflamed virgin to 12th-century Munich, Strauss made a subversive attack on the provinciality of his hometown and a Wagnerian tradition from which he was slowly liberating himself.
The Semperoper, in co-production with the Dresdner Musikfestspiele, on June 7 mounted a new semi-staging of Feuersnot (literally, The Need of Fire) that manages to recreate the work’s peculiar humor with both charm and authenticity. In an open-air castle courtyard at the center of town, the Dresdner Festspielorchester, playing on 19th-century instruments, occupied an acoustically enhanced stage while singers and actors wove through the audience and onto the surrounding balconies (scenic direction by Angela Brandt).
During the overture, a girls’ chorus ran out in traditional Bavarian costume, adding wood to a bonfire that would blaze (with orange lighting and a smoke machine) at the opera’s climax, when Kunrad – a foreigner who becomes smitten with the mayor’s daughter, Diemut – declares his passion and steals a kiss. The virgin takes revenge, however, when Diemut’s friends hoist him up in a basket and allow the locals to ridicule him.
In an effective move, Brandt inserts two child actors as Doppelgänger for Kunrad and Diemut who play out the action offstage while the leads (Tómas Tómasson and Rachel Willis-Sørensen) can stand and sing. It is not until the final duet, when the citizens demand Diemut’s submission to Kunrad, that the lovers appear as their adult selves on the fated balcony.
There is no question that the libretto by Ernst von Wolzogen is painfully convoluted, especially when Kunrad suddenly summons magical powers to put out all the city’s lights. But Brandt again finds a convincing solution by casting Tómasson in a blue spotlight while the locals hold up their fists. The story also has positively naughty moments behind the guise of fairy-tale flight: “Alle Mädeln mögen Met!” (roughly, “All girls like to do it!”) declare Diemut’s three friends in Bavarian dialect at the end of the opera.
Even those moments emerged with just the right touch of ironic distance, thanks to the evening’s fine cast. Tómasson captured Kunrad’s nearly demonic need to conquer Diemut with a booming Heldenbaritone that seemed tireless even through endless soliloquies about his passion. Rich-voiced soprano Willis-Sørensen made for a fine partner, even if the voice has not yet attained the same power. She was particularly moving in Diemut’s longing number “Mitsommernacht!”
Few other characters are fleshed out in any detail, but further stand-outs included Carolina Ulrich as Margret, the cheeky leader of Diemut’s three friends; bass Michael Eder as the mayor; and Jürgen Miller as the authoritarian custodian of the castle where Kunrad is lodging. Strauss assigns more musical heft to the orchestra, which moves through overt Wagnerian allusions and Bavarian slurs into shimmering harmonies foreshadowing Der Rosenkavalier and deft dramatic architecture that recalls his later tone poems.
On the original instruments of the festival orchestra, the textures emerged with raw clarity, creating an understated effect that contrasts with the more brilliant sound of modern strings and winds. The conductor Stefan Klingele led with an intuitive sense of phrase and dramatic timing.
Strauss’ Last Song
The Dresdner Festspielorchester is, of course, not the only Strauss ensemble in town. The Staatskapelle Dresden, the orchestra (then called the Hofkapelle) that originally premiered Feuersnot, presented another rarity at the Semperoper on June 8: Strauss’ last song, “Malven,” in an orchestration by Wolfgang Rihm that was unveiled at the Salzburg Easter Festival earlier this season.
Rihm, who at first declined the commission, does not make the piece his own but rather fleshes out the original lines of the piano accompaniment with a small string ensemble in dialogue with harp, clarinet, flute, and other winds. It is only after the final line that a pair of horns emerge, creating a halo around the summer scene.
Although the original song, found posthumously in the New York safe of soprano Maria Jeritza, has an undeniably intimate identity, Rihm’s gentle orchestral colors in fact heighten the images of flowers, golden light, and summer breeze in the poem by Betty Knobel.
In what may be considered a bold move, “Malven” was inserted here into Strauss’ Four Last Songs, a cycle created posthumously by his publisher. The soprano Anja Harteros was particularly moving in the last two numbers, “Beim Schlafengehen” and “Abendrot,” evoking a sense of melancholy and nostalgia through dynamically swelling phrases that required tremendous breath support.
Staatskapelle music director Christian Thielemann drew beautifully rounded phrases from every section, allowing the orchestra to melt into Strauss’ sophisticated tonal harmonies. The orchestra’s ability to create sustained, understated textures and then build to shattering climaxes came to the fore in Strauss’ Alpine Symphony, which the orchestra premiered in 1915.
The huge palette of textures – from chirping woodwinds to ripping strings to a wind machine that is later imitated in the violins – reveals how Strauss paved the way forward from late Romanticism. Opening the program was Rihm’s Ernster Gesang, a 1997 chamber work that, alongside growling brass and sheets of sustained strings, includes clarinet writing in homage to Brahms – a personal integration of tradition and modernism of which Strauss might well have approved.
Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to publications such as Gramophone, MusicalAmerica.com, Opernwelt, and The New York Times.