Stellar DVD Set Offers Cavalcade Of Strauss Operas

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Nadja Michael as Salome (Royal Opera Season 2007/2008). Photo by Clive Barda
Nadja Michael as Salome in the 2007-2008 Royal Opera House season kisses Jokanaan’s head.
(Photo by Clive Barda).

The Richard Strauss Collection:  Authorized and Collected by the Strauss Family.  Salome (2007), Elektra (1989), Der Rosenkavalier (1979), Ariadne auf Naxos (1965), Die Frau Ohne Schatten (1992), Die Liebe der Danae (2011), Capriccio (2004).  (Arthaus Musik, 11 DVDs)

By Paul E. Robinson

DIGITAL REVIEW — This monumental collection of DVDs was released in 2014 as part of the 150th anniversary celebrations of the birth of composer Richard Strauss. Members of the Strauss family, led by his grandson Christian, personally selected the works and the performances. The oldest performance is the 1965 Salzburg Festival production of Ariadne auf Naxos led by Karl Böhm. The most recent is the rarely heard Die Liebe der Danae in a 2011 production from the Deutsche Oper Berlin. All in all, this is an impressive compilation of performances. The quality of the presentation is first-rate and the boxed set would enhance any collection.

Strauss DVD 350Given the magnitude of the project, Arthaus Musik’s decision to package the booklet and DVDs in what would appear to collectors to be an old-fashioned box of LPs rather than a large set of plastic jewel cases was a wise one, allowing for the addition of a sizable booklet that does justice to the subject matter. The 100-page booklet contains numerous photos of the composer, his family and colleagues (taken from the family’s own archive), excellent essays on each of the operas, and photos of most of the productions featured in the collection. Opera texts are not provided, but these are readily available elsewhere, and for English-speaking viewers there are subtitles on the DVD performances. Given the size of the booklet included in this boxed set, one has no trouble at all reading the voluminous text — a built-in limitation of most CD and DVD releases.

Richard Strauss wrote 15 operas; only seven are included in this collection. Why not all of them? Why these seven rather than a different seven? In answer to the first question, I would guess that the size of the boxed set was a consideration. I would also guess that some of the more obscure operas do not exist in good quality DVD versions. A complete set of the Strauss operas — audio only — is available from DG (479 2274) on 33 CDs or downloads.

The second question is more difficult to answer. I was surprised, for example, that Arabella, one of the better Strauss operas, with several excellent DVD versions readily available, was not included. And I would gladly have done without Die Liebe der Danae, a mediocre production of an inferior opera.

Several of the performances in this set are outstanding and would be on most people’s short list of the best Strauss opera performances available on DVD, notably the 1965 Ariadne auf Naxos from Salzburg with Karl Böhm on the podium. Böhm conducted several Strauss opera premieres and was regarded as an authoritative Strauss interpreter. Sena Jurinac was the definitive Composer of her time, and the cast also included Paul Schöffler as the Music Master and Jess Thomas as Bacchus — both of them excellent. Günther Rennert’s production was traditional in the best sense.

Der Rosenkavalier from a 1979 Munich production directed by Otto Schenk and conducted by Carlos Kleiber is also outstanding. Schenk and Kleiber understand the style perfectly and the cast is nearly ideal. Soprano Gwyneth Jones could be erratic, but on her best days she was fabulous as she is here. Brigitte Fassbaender is a superb Octavian. Kleiber gets detailed playing from the Bavarian State Opera Orchestra and makes the score consistently fresh without exaggeration, except at the end of the famous Trio. Kleiber suddenly accelerates toward the climax, giving the music real frisson. While this unexpected touch certainly got my attention, I am not sure the music requires it.

The 1989 Elektra from Vienna conducted by Claudio Abbado and directed by Harry Kupfer is simply the finest performance of the opera I have ever seen or heard. Eva Marton as Elektra, Brigitte Fassbaender as Klytämnestra and Cheryl Studer as Chrysothemis not only sing this difficult music with accuracy and passion, but also inhabit their roles with hair-raising conviction.

Wolfgang Sawallisch, like Böhm a renowned Strauss conductor, leads this set’s very fine performance of Die Frau ohne Schatten, recorded live in Nagoya, Japan, in 1992 during a visit by members of the Bavarian State Opera. Director Ennosuke Ichikawa and the entire production team are Japanese. Ichikawa was a Kabuki actor and all the superhuman characters were adorned in elaborate Kabuki-style costumes and makeup. This is an excellent production of a complex and, some might say, confusing opera. The cast is wonderful, with Janis Martin (who died in December 2014)  as the Dyer’s wife singing with strength and conviction.

The performance of Salome recorded live at La Scala in 2007 is exceptional. There have been many great Salomes over the years, but Nadja Michael is certainly one of the very best. She looks the part of the deranged young girl and sings and acts with incredible intensity. Her dance is every bit as sexy as it needs to be but without the nudity that seems to be required of Salomes today. Director Luc Bondy deserves a lot of credit for capturing the horror of the piece while emphasizing artistic discipline. Daniel Harding’s conducting brings out the originality and power of Strauss’ score. Fans of the exciting Michael will get a chance to see her soon at the Met (and in the series the Met Live in HD) in Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

Renée Fleming appears in no fewer than three commercial DVD performances of Capriccio. She has been one of the great Strauss sopranos of our time and she is especially celebrated for her portrayal of the Countess. In this 2004 performance from the Paris National Opera, she is at her best as both singer and actress. Anne Sofie von Otter as Clairon is outstanding and the rest of the cast in this ensemble piece is very strong. The direction by Robert Carsen manages to be both traditional and inventive, although I could have done without the gratuitous insertion of several Nazi characters. Is that the price Strauss has to pay for composing the opera during World War II?

Kirsten Harms’ 2011 production of Die Liebe der Danae for the Deutsche Oper Berlin is a travesty. For reasons unknown, she moved the setting of the opera from Greek mythological times to something like the present. Having done that, she then felt free to recreate the piece from top to bottom. I couldn’t make much sense of her concept, least of all the rationale for the grand piano hanging from the ceiling in several scenes. The quality of singing in this DVD is poor, and that of soprano Manuela Uhl as Danae almost unbearable. It baffles me why this production was included here.

Here are the production details of the operas in the collection:

Salome. Iris Vermillion, Nadja Michael, Falk Struckmann, Orchestra of the Teatro alla Scala, Daniel Harding (conductor), Luc Bondy (director). (2007)

Elektra. Cheryl Studer, Brigitte Fassbaender, Eva Marton, Franz Grundheber, Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Claudio Abbado (conductor), Harry Kupfer (director) (1989)

Der Rosenkavalier. Gwyneth Jones, Brigitte Fassbaender, Lucia Popp, Francisco Araiza, Bavarian State Orchestra, Carlos Kleiber (conductor), Otto Schenk (director) (1979)

Ariadne auf Naxos. Sena Jurinac, Hildegard Hillebrecht, Reri Grist, Jess Thomas, Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera, Karl Böhm (conductor), Günther Rennert (director) (1965)

Die Frau Ohne Schatten. Peter Seiffert, Luana DeVol, Alan Titus, Janis Martin, Marjana Lipovsek, Bavarian State Opera Orchestra, Wolfgang Sawallisch (conductor), Ennosuke Ichikawa (director) (1992)

Die Liebe der Danae. Manuela Uhl, Mark Delevan, Matthias Klink, Thoma Blondelle, Orchestra and Chorus of the Deutsche Oper Berlin, Andrew Litton (conductor), Kirsten Harms (director) (2011)

Capriccio. Renée Fleming, Rainer Trost, Gerald Finley, Dietrich Henschel, Franz Hawalata, Orchestra of the Paris National Opera, Ulf Schirmer (conductor), Robert Carsen (director) (2004)

Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster, and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, www.musicaltoronto.org, and www.scena.org.

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