Exhumed Operatic Gems Recall Epoch Of A Fragile Peace

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By David Shengold

NEW YORK — Leon Botstein’s American Symphony Orchestra concerts are regularly a source of insight into recondite repertoire corners. The ensemble’s Carnegie Hall outing Oct. 19 of two pre-World War II operas colored in different ways by the political tensions of the time — Ernst Krenek’s 1928 Der Diktator and Richard Strauss’ Friedenstag (Peace Day) from a decade later — followed suit, to the benefit of the considerable audience that turned out on the night of the final Presidential debate to hear the concert titled “Troubled Days of Peace.” The xenophobia and admiration for absolutism that the election season has unleashed made the two works not untimely, as Botstein noted in his pre-concert talk.

American Symphony Orchestra conductor Leon Botstein. (Pic Kallaher)
ASO music director Leon Botstein. (Ric Kallaher)

Black-clad as ever, he meandered around the stage holding forth via a wireless mic like a learned if somewhat world-weary preacher at the Church of High Culture (Adorno got his inevitable mention). Closer fact-checking would not have been amiss (Hugo von Hofmannsthal died in 1929, not 1933), but Botstein set the stage for the contrasting operas.

Krenek’s brief piece belongs to the genre of Zeitoper: swift, unsentimental windows into political and social realities, often set to eclectic scores. Friedenstag requires (and here received) more complex citing: Strauss, initially chosen by the Nazis to head up Germany’s Reichsmusikkammer, was dismissed in 1935, partially over communications with the eminent Jewish writer Stefan Zweig, his librettist for Die schweigsame Frau. Worried about his status and safety of his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandsons, Strauss conceived Friedenstag, a project celebrating the end of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648.

Shepherded by Zweig, who suggested the highly literate but somewhat prosaic Joseph Gregor as a palatable substitute librettist, the opera depicts the last day of a long, destructive siege. The onset of peace, as Botstein sagely observed, brings on a delirious major-key ensemble recalling Fidelio. After initial successes in Munich and Vienna with a starry cast under Clemens Krauss, the opera’s antiwar message became inconvenient and “impossible” after Hitler invaded Poland.

Donnie Ray Albert portrayed Krenek's Dictator.
Donnie Ray Albert sang title role in Krenek’s ‘Der Diktator.’

The Krenek jumps around stylistically in recounting an incident: a Mussolini-like monster, vacationing in Switzerland, manages to transfix a would-be assassin (Maria), the wife of an officer blinded by his wartime deployment of mustard gas. At close quarters, his snake-like charisma overwhelms her (the transformation’s brevity renders it psychologically incredible); she dies in shielding him from a shot from his jealous wife, Charlotte. The dictator dismisses Charlotte and is himself scared away by the Grand Guignol arrival of the sightless officer, who knows only that a shot has been fired. Not a great score, but an intriguing one, and the fluent climactic trio for baritone and the two sopranos attains real tension.

Now 66, heroic baritone Donnie Ray Albert (Diktator) remains a wonder of steady projection and dynamically nuanced vocalism. Karen Chia-Ling Ho (Maria) fielded a rich, full-bodied soprano and shaped lines beautifully — clearly an artist of high promise to watch. Ilana Davidson’s Charlotte made a nice contrast with her girlishly fluid and light (but effectively projected) soprano. To Mark Duffin fell the ungrateful, screamy, impossibly high part of the officer, clearly a Straussian legacy that carried over to most of Germany’s subsequent operatic composers.

Richard Strauss (center) with 'Friedenstag' premiere singers Hans Hotter and Viorica Ursuleac.
Strauss with ‘Friedenstag’ premiere singers Hans Hotter and Viorica Ursuleac.

Friedenstag revolves around the interaction of the baritone Commandant (created by Hans Hotter) and his wife, Maria, a soaring (up to D-flat) soprano part crafted for Krauss’ wife, Viorica Ursuleac. Though names occur in passing lines, Maria is the only named character in the score, like Barak in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Maria is also the human fulcrum of the story. The name bespeaks her obvious associations as divine intercessor.

Soprano-baritone dialogues lie at the emotional heart of many Strauss operas (consider Salome-Jokaanan, Elektra-Orest, Barak’s Wife-Barak, Arabella-Mandryka, perhaps most of all Christine-Storch in the autobiographical Intermezzo); Friedenstag is no exception. Albert (Commandant) again compelled admiration for his vocal and musical savvy, as well as his stamina. He took the punishing high writing in his stride and didn’t stint on legato in quiet passages.

Ilana Davidson was the Dictator's wife in Krenek's opera.
Ilana Davidson was the Dictator’s wife in Krenek’s opera.

The announced Maria (Tamara Wilson) having withdrawn at what Botstein made clear was very short notice, it was brave of Kirsten Chambers — the Met’s understudy for Salome, to undertake the difficult role in public. She made it through professionally, though, perfectly understandably, not always delivering the music in strict rhythm and finding little nuance in the text. A star was not born: Her timbre wasn’t special, and it was difficult to hear her in the lower and middle registers. She did manage to produce the high notes, and they gained in body as she went on. One can imagine Chambers as a fine “house” Chrysothemis or Daphne in a smaller European theater.

Most of the other figures are under-characterized, though a few require major voices: the loyal Sergeant and the Holsteiner enemy commander (here doubled by imposing bass Ricardo Lugo, keenly inflecting words) and the Musketeer (Carsten Wittmoser, an excellent, resonant bass-baritone). Strauss generally loathed tenors, and his writing was ill-served here for the fearful Corporal (a decadent-sounding, over-sibilant Spieltenor, Doug Jones) and the Burgomeister of the frayed Duffin, who managed a few good held climaxes.

Very different writing obtains for the visiting Piemontese, whose sun-drenched song — premiered by Peter Anders, no less — shows the others how bleak their lives have been. (Related “Italian” interpolations mark Der Rosenkavalier and Capriccio.) Barring one accident, Scott Joiner served the music quite lyrically.

Botstein in some ways is best encountered at Bard, where the Fisher Center’s pit somewhat mutes his love of the big orchestral noise, which can drown singers. But, save for some disputable brass intonation, the American Symphony had a good evening. The Bard Festival Chorale generally stayed in good sync; an eerily accompanied passage in the prelude to the full-voiced finale evoked another Frau ohne Schatten parallel: the Voices of the Unborn Children calling to their parents. The evening proved a stimulating and worthwhile exposure to two operatic rarities.

Critic and lecturer David Shengold resides in Philadelphia and New York City; he regularly writes for Opera News, Opera, Opéra Magazine, Opernwelt, Playbill, and many other venues and has done program essays for companies including the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, and the Wexford and Glyndebourne festivals.