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Light my foyer

Each year, Leon Botstein leads the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert opera or two. His choices vary between two repertories: deeply obscure works or operas by Richard Strauss. On Sunday, at Carnegie Hall, the two circles of this Venn Diagram overlapped in a very rare display of Strauss’s second opera, Feuersnot (Need for Fire), in possibly its New York professional debut. Naturally, that drew quite a crowd.  

Feuersnot is one of the innumerable “folk” operas that German composers—and others—felt called upon to write in the magnificent wake of Wagner’s derivations from medieval epic. Of all this music, much of it very fine, only Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel and, perhaps, Dvorak’s Russalka entered the mainstream. Strauss had failed with his first operatic attempt, in 1894, the long and lugubriously “pious” Guntram, though he blamed the orchestra and not his own clumsy libretto for the flop.

Feuersnot, brief (one long act) but preachy, appeared in 1901, just as, thanks to his tone-poems, Strauss was ascending to the upper ranks of German composers, and at first it aroused interest. The Metropolitan Opera’s Board of Directors urged impresario Heinrich Conried to secure its American premiere, but the debacle of the Met’s Salome so outraged Strauss that he refused to have anything to do with the company for several years. Anyway, there was another game in town back then, Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera. He was awarded Salome and Elektra (both in French)—but showed no interest in Feuersnot. And, after Rosenkavalier, everyone forgot about the early piece.

The story is rather pagan than Christian. On Summer Solstice, a feast of light (with a slight nod to “Holy Hans,” John the Baptist, whose day it is, as you recall from Die Meistersinger), the people of Munich gather wood for celebratory bonfires. A local student of sorcery, Kunrad (pupil of a forgotten and disdained wizard, “Meister Reichart,” complete with Wagner quotations), pursues Diemut, the Burgomaster’s lovely daughter. She invites him into a basket (an elevator to the gallows) to reach her upstairs bedroom, then leaves him suspended over the street so everyone can laugh at his rejection. Kunrad, humiliated, puts a spell on the town that has scorned his magic: Every fire and light in town goes out. No more grilled sauerbraten!

The people entreat Diemut to save them, and she receives Kunrad through her window. (Does she really love him or does she take him out of pity? A more experienced composer/librettist would not have left this question hanging in the air.) After a suitably orchestrated interval, the bonfires burst into flame. No one in the tale is very deep, but the admirer of Strauss will notice in Diemut an early example of the sensuously blazing sopranos of his later catalogue. Kunrad’s jejune but ardent baritone may be a preview of Barak, though his self-righteousness reminds one of Jochana’an (Holy Hans) in Strauss’s next opera.

Besides these two, the biggest role in the opera belongs to the chorus of children gathering wood, rejoicing in bright lights, teasing the lovers, bewailing the dark. Theirs is a long and arduous part, one reason the opera is seldom revived. At Carnegie Hall, the Manhattan Girls Chorus performed with bright sound, impressive diction and musicality, and intricately various dynamics.

Diemut was sung by Jacquelyn Wagner, a singer new to me, and I fell head over heels in love. Imagine the soaring line called for by any Strauss heroine, but, unlike so many aspirants, rooted with no audible break in a deep, stirring middle voice seemingly capable of Fricka tones. She displayed a cool, alluring sound, a natural richness of timbre, a witty way with Diemut’s bitchy jokes. (This is a very sexist opera.) Withal, she is a tall, slim, fair-haired young woman. She sings a lot of Mozart around Europe and, quite lately, her first Arabella:

Kunrad is the opera’s principal role, and Strauss composed it with his usual lack of sympathy for male singers. This bass-baritone must range high and range low, make himself heard over a Strauss orchestra, woo and denounce with fervor and, at the opera’s climax, declaim an endless sermon while the rest of the cast—and all of us—listen, abashed and respectful, to his complaint. This ungrateful part was given to Alfred Walker, whose stardom I’ve been awaiting since he was in the Met Young Artists Program at the century’s turn. Nowadays he’s singing the Dutchman from Seattle to Luxembourg, plus many an Amfortas, Hoffmann villains, Don Quichotte, Telramund and Amonasro. The voice is supple and sizable, not enormous but effective and distinct, with personality. He was not shrill once when Strauss pushed him high, and his mid-voice was pure and resonant. His diction was crisp and the words had meaning; our attention did not stray.

Walker would make a likely Alberich. He sang a flirtatious quartet with three Munich maidens that made me think, This is how Rheingold might have gone, with plenty of canoodling and no reason for theft—but then the Ring would stop right there, eh? The ladies were Brenda Patterson, Cynthia Hanna and Micaëla Oeste, foreshadowing the delicious trios in Ariadne. The brief roles of the townsfolk were all of them well cast. Many of them had names and, no doubt, personalities, but Strauss gives them little of the epigrammatic individuality he would devise for quarreling Jews at Herod’s court, serving maids in Argos, attendees at the Marschallin’s levée. In a staged performance, perhaps costume would distinguish them, but I don’t recall them from the Manhattan School of Music production thirty years ago, either. (That may have been the New York premiere of the opera; if I’m wrong, I know which website to consult for apt and severe correction.)

The typical welter of a Strauss orchestra in full cry arose pleasurably from the ASO, and the score felt shorter than its clocked ninety minutes. The music seems to be working itself up, huffing and puffing, to a climax that Feuersnot does not achieve; the Solstice consummation sounds tame after Tristan (or if one thinks of the “consummation” that would open Rosenkavalier). This is an opera full of humanity but without humans other than Diemut and her didactic lover. Botstein, in his detailed notes, points out that Mozart, not Wagner, was Strauss’s favorite composer, but Strauss’s bumptious humor seems (as it does in Rosenkavalier and Arabella) a lot closer to the beat-a-dead-horse-till-it-whimpers of Meistersinger than the airy, humane wit of Figaro or Seraglio.

19 comments

  • MontyNostry says:

    Once again, having been impressed by her back in 2009, I am very glad to see Jacquelyn Wagner receiving high praise.

    • Clita del Toro says:

      I like J. Wagner as well. She reminds me a bit of Schwanewilms and Della Casa.
      Very nice clip from Arabella. I like the way she just stands there with a minimum of gestures and lets her lovely voice do the work.

    • warmke says:

      The dangers of everyone hopping on the judging by the “clip” are well known; are any of you going to actually hear this live? I’d be very curious to hear if any of you actually hold this preliminary view of Wagner after the concert, as my actually live hearings of this singer have found her to be a very light-weight, almost colorless singer, with minimal lower middle range and some tremendous stress issues in the upper registers causing real intonation issues. I find her flat and as dead as a doornail dramatically, with a smallish voice for this repertoire. She has a look, but nothing behind it, just a certain competence for regional theaters. As a replacement for Lisa della Casa, I wouldn’t be holding my breath. Botstein took her for a lower fee than more glamorous sounds would permit, which is what this music needs for real advocacy.

  • Quanto Painy Fakor says:

    Listening to the Arabella clip above and admiring all the lovely overtones in Jacquelyn Wagner’s voice. Hopefully she has become more comfortable making the highest notes bloom in full glory. Brava.

  • Belfagor says:

    She had quiet but assertive presence and almost instrumental quality through the registers, and there was one high note (can’t remember where -- this was one opera I’d never heard a single note from before) that simply scintillated and diffracted through the hall -- totally thrilling!

  • uwsinnyc says:

    gorgeous clip.
    She resembles to some degree Anne Schwanewilms.

  • skoc211 says:

    There aren’t many videos of her up on youtube, but her “E’ strano… Sempre Libera” is pretty spectacular.

    • antikitschychick says:

      this is indeed very very good. Her voice bears a resemblance to that of Angela G., with a touch of Renee thrown in for good measure but without any of the mannerisms of either. Very very nice. Good musicality too.

      • Bianca Castafiore says:

        • Bianca Castafiore says:

          Amazing how the audience actually waits until the maestro puts his hands down before clapping (let alone the end of the last note). Would never happen at the Met.

        • antikitschychick says:

          am listening to this right now and all I can say is umm..wow!!! This woman knows how to sing!! Its too bad the camera is showing her backside the entire time. Thanks for sharing this Bianca and skoc211. She’s American right??

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    OT:

    Carissimi, I finally watched the whole thing:

    Did I miss something? There’s no Rienzi in this concert although it’s listed in the description for this clip?

    Yes, Westbroek doesn’t sound good in the Liebestod.

  • Bianca Castafiore says:

    Carini, vediamo a venerdi.