Guntram (premiere: 1894) • Feuersnot (1901) • Salome (1905) • Elektra (1909) • Der Rosenkavalier (1911) • Ariadne auf Naxos (1916) • Die Frau ohne Schatten (1919) • Intermezzo (1924) • Der Aegyptische Helena (1928) • Arabella (1933) • Die schweigsame Frau (1945) • Friedenstag (1938) • Die Liebe der Danae (1952) • Capriccio (1942)
Reiner Goldberg ten Guntram Ilona Tokody sop Freihild Sándor Sólyom-Nágy bass The Old Duke István Gáti bar Robert János Bándi ten The Duke's Fool Atila Fiilop ten An old man Tamara Takács contr An old woman József Gregor bass Freihold Pal Kovács bar Messenger Tamás Bátor bass First young man János Tóth bass Second young man Hungarian Army Chorus; Hungarian State Orchestra / Eve Queler
Sony Classical (two discs) 88697 44816-2 Buy from Amazon
Guntram was written while Strauss was suffering from a very severe attack of Wagnerian 'flu, with mystical complications. Its plot takes the renunciatory themes of Tannhäuser, Lohengrin and Parsifal, and takes them too far (mysterious knight falls for and wins love of saintly Princess, kills her hateful, peasantry-oppressing husband but then, announcing that he must now expiate his sin in solitude, abandons her, advising her to devote herself to charitable works – her reaction, you will be surprised to learn , is not to hit him behind the ear with the nearest blunt implement but to kiss his hand ‘with anguished humility and peaceful reconciliation’). All this would be bad enough (and it was seasoned, in the original version of the opera, with frequent appearances from one of the most deeply tiresome characters in operatic history, a merry Fool, roguishly crying ‘Hi-diddle-dum-di’ at inappropriate moments), but the composer's own libretto makes matters a deal worse: it is a mess of alliterative doggerel ('hohen Gesanges gottliche Gabe im heil'gen Gewande gottliche Lehre leitet zu Gott' and the like), a feeble imitation of the less attractive attributes of Wagner's own texts.
Well might Strauss admit that Guntram demonstrates how ‘hair-raisingly naïve’ he was when he wrote it, and there is indeed something extraordinary about the composer who had already demonstrated his mastery and individuality in Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung voluntarily subjugating his personality to the Holy See of Bayreuth – in the music itself this self-abasement before Wagner takes sincere flattery to the point of (apparently unconscious) literal quotations from Tannhäuser, Tristan, Der Ring . . . even from Rienzi. And yet, and yet. In the section of Ein Heldenleben called ‘The Hero's works of peace’, that defensive catalogue of the achievements Strauss was proudest of, almost a third of the self-quotations came from Guntram. And nearly half a century later he was still sufficiently convinced that the neglect of his first-born opera was unjustified to produce a revised version of it (the edition used in this recording), cutting the score by no less than half-an-hour (including most, but not all, of the ‘Hi-diddle-dum-dis’) and thinning-out its massively rich orchestration. It was worth saving, he said, for the sake of ‘so much beautiful music’. And in this, as in the admission of hair-raising naïveté, he was right. The mature Strauss is indeed present in Guntram: after a preliminary mélange of Wagner and Berlioz (!) we hear it in the beautiful string melodies of the Prelude, in the rich nature-music as Guntram's first monologue describes the forest in spring, in the gracious melody for the entrance of Princess Freihild. We hear it often in the orchestra, less often in the voices: Strauss is still reliant on the Wagnerian model for declamation and for narrative, especially where the text requires vigour or evokes quasi-religious imagery that is essentially foreign to his nature. But each of the principal characters has a monologue in which we can almost see (in Freihild's case) Elektra putting off the armour of Brünnhilde, or even (in Guntram's) the lineaments of Lohengrin dissolving into those of Bacchus. And in the final scene, after Guntram has quite failed to fire Strauss's imagination with his poker-faced moral gesturings, the plight of Freihild suddenly catches the heart of the creator-to-be of Chrysothemis, and a glorious melody emerges in the orchestra: Strauss himself, in desperate need of a good librettist but rising above the worn-out trappings of his plot with something like nobility. Yes, it is worth reviving, ‘even,’ as Strauss said, ‘if only as an example of the first work of a dramatist who later achieved success’, and this performance serves it pretty well.
Ilona Tokody is outstanding as Freihild, a Verdian soprano in a Wagnerian role, really, and she is not comfortable in the highest passages, but she makes every phrase graphic, expressive, interesting. Reiner Goldberg has moments of edginess and ofn insecurity, but he has the right combination of heroic ring and other-worldly solemnity for the impossible hero. The other principals are reliable (one or two of the minor characters are not) and the orchestra and chorus are excellent under Eve Queler's careful direction. The recording tends to focus on the voices, rather, which is a pity, since the focus of interest for the Straussian is in the orchestra. Still, a by-no-means-unworthy resuscitation of what Strauss, on a bitterly ironic grave-stone set up in his own garden, described (after the disastrous Munich production in 1895) as ‘the honorable and virtuous youth Guntram, Minnesinger, horribly slain by the symphony orchestra of his own father’. Michael Oliver (January 1985)
Maud Cunitz sop Diemut Marcel Cordes bar Kunrad Max Proebstl bass Ortolf Sentlinger Antonia Fahberg sop Elsbeth Irmgard Barth mez Wigelis Liselotte Nolser sngr Margret Karl Ostertag ten Schweiker von Gundelfingen Georg Wieter bass Jorg Poschel Karl Hoppe bass Hammeriein Kieth Engen bass Kofel Rudolf Wirmer bass Kunz Gilgenstock Paul Kuen ten Ortlieb Tulbeck Ina Gerhein sngr Ursula Walther Carnuth ten Ruger Aspeck Gerda Sommerschuh sop Walpurg Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Rudolf Kempe
Orfeo mono C423962J (88 minutes: ADD). Recorded at a performance in the Prinzregententheater, Munich on August 14, 1958. Buy from Amazon
Performance of Strauss's second opera has virtually been confined, through its 97-year-old history, to Strauss headquarters in Munich (it still awaits a professional performance in Britain). This recording derives from a revival at the 1958 Munich Festival; I saw a later staging there, in 1981 (with Sabine Hass and Siegmund Nimsgern); and there exists a Munich Radio recording available at the end of the LP era on Acanta (1/85 - nla) with Julia Varady and Bernd Weikl that ought to be disinterred.
When Andrew Porter saw this 1958 staging, his comments on the score in Opera were most apposite: ‘The balance between comedy and lyricism is lightly held. It is a very successfully made opera, with a variety of small, effective roles, a pretty use of a children's chorus, so me extremely beautiful music, and no ne that is boring or less than attractive.’ In that case why has it languished so long in the shadows? Probably because Strauss, in writing it to get his own back on Munich's musical conservatives for keeping him so long out in the cold, created a satire of its time , not really relevant today, and also because he wrote so many superior operas in the years ahead.
It could have no firmer advocate than that true Straussian, Rudolf Kempe, who conducts it lovingly and with an innate feeling for its textures, delineating the many obvious influences, mostly Wagnerian, on the opera but also suggesting how the composer absorbed these into his own, highly individual style, especially in his writing for the two principals. The key part of Kunrad, the romantic rebel with whom Strauss obviously identifies, calls for a Heldenbariton. The admirable Cordes is not quite that but he does have the range to do justice to the part's high tessitura and he sings with conviction. Cunitz, some way past her best, is a wobbly Diemut, but as a singer of a generation who knew the importance of words, she almost makes us forget her vocal deficiencies. Many Munich stalwarts of the da y fill the smaller roles. The orchestra and chorus, well rehearsed, offer lively performances, and the mono recording is more than adequate. All the same I would like to see that stereo Acanta set revived on CD, not least to hear Varady's Diemut.
Alan Blyth (November 1998)
Salome (see also Alex Ross's Collection)
Hildegard Behrens sop Salome Karl-Walter Böhm ten Herod Agnes Baltsa mez Herodias Wieslaw Ochman ten Narraboth José van Dam bass Jokanaan Heljä Angervo sop Page Jules Bastin bass First Nazarene Dieter Ellenbeck ten Second Nazarene Gerd Nienstedt bass First Soldier Kurt Rydl bass Second Soldier Helge von Bomches bass Cappadocian Horst Nitsche ten Slave Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
EMI 966832-2 (two discs: ADD). Recorded 1977. Buy from Amazon
This is a ravishingly beautiful set, providing a thick carpet of sound to have one thinking of this as the longest and most seductive of Strauss's symphonic poems. That comment alone implies what many will in any case expect: that the conductor is paramount. It was he who at the Salzburg Festival last year not only conducted performances with the same cast as here but also (as is his custom at Salzburg) supervised the production. It is a marvellously consistent and single-minded concept of Strauss's opera, and from first to last sensuous beauty is the keynote . The earlier Leinsdorf set of this opera (RCA) had Montserrat Caballé as the heroine and the same prima donna has recently recorded the final scene with Bernstein (DG), but in vocal richness and sheer ripeness of sensuality Hildegard Behrens outshines even that example, and when one comes to comparing this performance with the classic Decca one of Birgit Nilsson with Solti and the same orchestra as here, the contrast could hardly be clearer.
That contrast is firmly underlined by the difference of recorded sound, and there, I suspect, more than anywhere the new set will divide opinion. At least one can say that the sound on the new set is exactly consistent with Karajan's reading. Where recent Karajan opera sets (and for that matter orchestral issues too) have come to betray excessive reliance on multi-channel techniques, with the separate strands sometimes standing out too clearly, this Vienna recording – made with the help of Decca engineers – has, as I say, a rich carpet of sound. Even the voice of Salome is often sunk into the opulent texture, with syllables and even whole words submerged in exactly the way one finds in the theatre. The hi-fi man who wants to be able to reproduce the whole texture of the score in his mind from what he hears will be deeply disappointed, but particularly if one follows the score, I would far rather have this consistent opulence than obviously synthetic balances. But going from one set to the other certainly brings out what a spectacular achievement John Culshaw's sonic production was back in 1961, using as it did multi-studio technique for such effects as John the Baptist's voice from the cistern.
As it happens, however, the contribution of Jokanaan, José van Dam on the new set against Eberhard Waechter, is a point on which I would decisively favour the new set. It is largely a question of the noble tone-colours which van Dam produces, beautifully reproduced, so that each time his voice enters in the opening scenes, just off stage, not distant, one registers the diatonic firmness of the writing , so sharply contrasted with the chromatic sophistication of the rest. This, one feels, each time, is the true voice of a holy man, and the Sea of Galilee solo is radiantly beautiful. A parallel – which may perhaps seem inconsistent but is not – is with some of the music given to Mandryka in Strauss's Arabella, the simple folk-themes representing honesty and good in a complex emotional world.
When it comes to the contrasts between Hildegard Behrens and Birgit Nilsson, in broad outline they a re exactly as I had expected, remembering Miss Behrens 's superb performance on stage. Where from the start Nilsson tends to represent the picture of cruel determination, however beautifully she shades down her sharply focused voice, Behrens is seductively believable as the young girl in love with sensuality. The delicacy and precision of her singing are a constant delight as well as the creamy richness in warmly lyrical passages. At the start in this view Salome is a glamorous, sparklingly attractive figure, and to the end, even in her degradation, she is no black villainess but one carried away by a supreme sensual obsession, with no feeling of harming anyone, merely of satisfying herself.
The problem in taking this view lies in making believable the heroine's insistence on having the head of John the Baptist, something which seems to come quite naturally to a Salome of the Nilsson stamp. Behrens's approach is closely thought out. The lightness and delicacy of her first throwaway statement ‘Den Kopf des Jokanaan’ is delectable, the casual statement of a flippant young girl, and as it grows harder with each repetition, so Behrens puts cruelty into the last two syllables of the name, draining the voice of its beautiful tone and turning it into a snarl. The final scene returns us to beauty of tone, and though the result is magnificent, a fitting climax, it is there that the Nilsson/Solti approach coupled with Decca sound reaps enormous dividends in incisiveness, bringing with it scalp-tingling horror. With Nilsson one does not have to remind oneself of the sickening depravity of the final scene: with Behrens it becomes simply the goal of lust, and one is horrified far less.
Clearly there is room for both views, and I should be interested to know which the composer himself would have preferred. I suspect that for many the more sharply defined view of Solti and Nilsson will have first claim, and certainly in recording terms it remains a unique achievement, one in which the best is last. I would have welcomed rather more sharply analytical sound in the new EMI, but its range and depth are thrilling, not least with the timpani, as in the running ostinato just before the head of John the Baptist is brought from the cistern on its salver.
Karajan's cast, as at Salzburg, is superb, with star names even among the groups of Jews, Nazarenes and Soldiers. I have already mentioned van Dam's splendid Jokanaan, never more noble than in his curse of Salome, and Karl-Walter Böhm gives an equally vivid portrait of Herod, a weak, even silly man, who is never made merely comic and whose predicament remains understandable. Agnes Baltsa, too, equally helped by stage experience with this cast, is a superb Herodias, and though Wieslaw Ochman as Narraboth produces some grainy tone (not least in the very opening phrase of the opera) his place in the picture is clear and convincing. This may not be quite the classic Strauss opera set which in its time Karajan's Philharmonia recording of Der Rosenkavalier was but equally it is a reading which no one from now on will be able to ignore, with its overpowering warmth of expression, its sensuous texturing and not least the superb playing of the Vienna Philharmonic.
Edward Greenfield (September 1978)
Nadja Michael sop Salome Michaela Schuster mez Herodias Thomas Moser ten Herod Joseph Kaiser ten Narraboth Michael Volle bar Jokanaan Royal Opera House Orchestra, Covent Garden / Philippe Jordan Stage director David McVicar Video director Jonathan Haswell
Opus Arte OA0996D (168’ • NTSC • 16:9 • PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 • 0) Extra features include documentary ‘David McVicar: A work in process’. Buy from Amazon
For all its nudity – whores at the start, an executioner who strips off before descending to decapitate Jochanaan – and gore – Salome ends the evening in a white petticoat red with blood (mostly from the executioner) – this is a conventional production which lays out the story straightforwardly. It is based on Pasolini’s film Salo which gives us the 1930s setting and 'decadent' extras (who could be much more animated) standing around watching an everyday story of the Herods.
Es Devlin’s handsome set – a nod to Richard Peduzzi’s toilet for the world premiere of the three-act Lulu, perhaps? – shows us Herod’s banquet in progress upstairs in addition to the main area of the basement, and becomes nicely mobile during a Dance in Seven Rooms (which, according to the accompanying documentary, depicts Salome’s abused upbringing).
Nadja Michael has become in short order Europe’s Number One not-quite-hochdramatische choice for physically demanding productions. She is an attractive Salome, moving like a dancer, as physically unafraid as she is vocally – and this tricky sing, with its ferocious tuning, suits her. Michael Volle is an imposing, rich-toned Narraboth, given little to do but emote about Jesus. Both these German artists make a considerable impact through their own voices and physicality – but it is Thomas Moser’s weakly human Herod who emerges as the most truly lived-in character.
Philippe Jordan seems to have balanced his orchestra extremely well for both house and cast and is especially alert to the most modern twists of Strauss’s harmonies. The filming (Jonathan Haswell) is sensitive to David McVicar’s work while being much more than merely a static record. Mike Ashman
Birgit Nilsson sop Elektra Regina Resnik mez Klytemnestra Marie Collier sop Chrysothemis Tom Krause bar Orestes Gerhard Stolze ten Aegisthus Tugomir Franc bass Tutor Pauline Tinsley sop Overseer Helen Watts contr Maureen Lehane, Yvonne Minton mezs Jane Cook, Felicia Weathers sops Maidservants Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti
Decca b 475 8231DOR2 (108‘ · ADD · S/T/t)
Recorded 1966-67 Amazon
Elektra is the most consistently inspired of all Strauss’s operas and derives from Greek mythology, with the ghost of Agamemnon, so unerringly delineated in the opening bars, hovering over the whole work. The invention and the intensity of mood are sustained throughout the opera’s one-act length, and the characterisation is both subtle and pointed. It’s a work peculiarly well suited to Solti’s gifts and it’s his best recording in the studios. He successfully maintains the nervous tension throughout the unbroken drama and conveys all the power and tension in Strauss’s enormously complex score (given complete).
The recording captures the excellent singers and the Vienna Philharmonic in a warm, spacious acoustic marred only by some questionable electronic effects. Notwithstanding the latter, this is undoubtedly one of the great performances and sounds even more terrifyingly realistic on this magnificent transfer.
Eva Marton sop Elektra Brigitte Fassbaender mez Klytemnestra Cheryl Studer sop Chrysothemis Franz Grundheber bar Orestes James King ten Aegisthus Goran Simic bass Tutor Waltraud Winsauer mez Confidante Noriko Sasaki sop Trainbearer Wilfried Gahmlich ten Young Servant Claudio Otelli bass-bar Old Servant Gabriele Lechner sop Overseer Margarita Lilowa, Gabriele Sima, Margareta Hintermeier, Brigitte Poschner-Klebel, Joanna Borowska Maidservants Vienna State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Claudio Abbado Stage director Harry Kupfer Video director Brian Large
ArtHaus Musik 100 049 (109‘ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo · 0 · s). Recorded live 1989. Buy from Amazon
This is an enjoyable performance, if that’s the right word for Elektra’s gruesome drama, of Strauss’s opera (taken from the first night of a new production at the Vienna State Opera in 1989), still one of the most sensational scores of the last century. Harry Kupfer may have conceived the work in even more lurid terms than its creators Hofmannsthal and Strauss intended, but the principals’ psychotic behaviour is so convincingly enacted that we’re carried into the soul of all their personal tortures of the mind. Elektra herself is a determined, raddled, single-minded harridan, lording it over sister and mother, a portrayal Eva Marton carries out with a deal of conviction, once one accepts the judder in her voice. Chrysothemis becomes a writhing, overwrought, frustrated figure, at one stage seeming to fake an orgasm, all of which Studer conveys with much emphasis on physical contact with her sister. She sings the taxing role with opulent tone and soaring phraseology.
Physicality is also of the essence in Fassbaender’s study of guilt and inner disintegration as a Klytemnestra of intriguing complexity, yet she still somehow manages to suggest the character’s feminine attraction. This portrayal alone makes this DVD essential viewing. Grundheber is the avenging Orestes to the life, with savagely piercing eyes and implacable tone. King is a properly futile paramour. In the activity of the extras, and such episodes as the butchering of Aegisthus and Chrysothemis wallowing in his blood-stained cloak, very little is left to the imagination. This is an enclosed world where licence and human sacrifices, unbridled in their ferocity, have taken over from order and humanity, and that was surely Kupfer’s intention, so that Orestes’ arrival has even more of a cleansing effect than usual.
In the pit, Abbado conducts with a single-minded intensity, constantly aware of the score’s brutal and tragic aspects, and he procures playing of tremendous concentration from the Vienna Philharmonic. Although the staging takes place in Stygian gloom, you can discern more of its detail in this reincarnation on DVD, which has the added advantage of containing the whole opera on a single disc.
This is a version to buy for its absorbing, fully integrated view of Strauss’s masterpiece.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sop Die Feldmarschallin Christa Ludwig mez Octavian Otto Edelmann bass Baron Ochs Teresa Stich-Randall sop Sophie Eberhard Waechter bar Faninal Nicolai Gedda ten Italian Tenor Kerstin Meyer contr Annina Paul Kuen ten Valzacchi Ljuba Welitsch sop Duenna Anny Felbermayer sop Milliner Harald Pröghlöf bar Notary Franz Bierbach bass Police Commissioner Erich Majkut ten Feldmarschallin’s Major-Domo Gerhard Unger ten Faninal’s Major-Domo, Animal Seller Karl Friedrich ten Landlord Loughton High School for Girls and Bancroft’s School Choirs; Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra / Herbert von Karajan
EMI 567605-2 (3h 11‘ · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1956. Buy from Amazon
Der Rosenkavalier concerns the transferring of love of the young headstrong aristocrat Octavian from the older Marschallin (with whom he’s having an affair) to the young Sophie, a girl of nouveau riche origins who’s of his generation. The portrayal of the different levels of passion is masterly and the Marschallin’s resigned surrender of her young lover gives opera one of its most cherishable scenes. The comic side of the plot concerns the vulgar machinations of the rustic Baron Ochs and his attempts to seduce the disguised Octavian (girl playing boy playing girl!). The musical richness of the score is almost indescribable, with streams of endless melody, and the final trio which brings the three soprano roles together is the crowning glory of a masterpiece of the 20th century.
This magnificent recording, conducted with genius by Karajan, and with a dream cast, is unlikely to be challenged for many a year. The Philharmonia play like angels, and Schwarzkopf as the Marschallin gives one of her greatest performances. The recording, lovingly remastered, is outstanding.
Gwyneth Jones sop Die Feldmarschallin Brigitte Fassbaender sop Octavian Manfred Jungwirth bass Baron Ochs Lucia Popp sop Sophie Benno Kusche bar Faninal Francisco Araiza ten Italian Tenor Gudrun Wewezow contr Annina David Thaw ten Valzacchi Anneliese Waas sop Duenna Susanne Sonnenschein sop Milliner Hans Wilbrink bass Notary Albrecht Peter bass Police Commissioner Georg Paskuda ten Major-Domo Friedrich Lenz ten Faninal’s Major-Domo Norbert Orth ten Landlord Osamu Kobayashi ten Animal Seller Bavarian State Opera Chorus; Bavarian State Orchestra / Carlos Kleiber Stage and video director Otto Schenk
DG 073 4072GH2 (3h 6’ · NTSC · 4:3 · PCM stereo and DTS 5.1 · 0 · s). Buy from Amazon
More than three decades on, this unforgettable performance has lost nothing of its power to delight eye and ear, and is in almost every way superior to Carlos Kleiber’s 1994 remake in Vienna. Schenk’s direction is finely judged, strong in detail, in Jürgen Rose’s handsome, traditional sets. Eschewing fashionable modernities, it has stood the test of time.
Kleiber’s reading has that essential mix of warmth and élan the score demands, and a lightness of touch allied to controlled but never effusive sentiment. The Bavarian State Opera Orchestra plays with the brio and confidence gained from long experience of Kleiber’s impulsive ways. The shots of the conductor in the pit during the preludes to Acts 1 and 3 show how incisive his beat can be and how much he actually enjoyed conducting the piece.
The instinctive interaction of the principal singers is another indication of the rapport achieved in this wonderful staging. The intimacy of the Act 2 dialogues between the Marschallin and Octavian and between Sophie and Octavian, and the interplay among the three in the closing scene of Act 3, is rewarding and deeply moving. In the name part, Fassbaender acts the ardent, impetuous youth to the life, sensual with the Marschallin in Act 1, lovestruck with Sophie in Act 2 and wittily amusing in the Mariandel disguise, the eyes conveying all the character’s changes of mood. Nothing is exaggerated, -everything rings true in an ideal assumption.
Popp conveys all the shy charm called for in the Silver Rose scene, indignation at Ochs’s boorish behaviour, and in Act 3 confusion as her emotions are torn apart; she sings with the right blend of purity and sensuousness. Dame Gwyneth, in one of her best roles, looks appealing and girlish in Act 1, and then becomes all dignified authority and resignation in Act 3. She is right inside the role, and suggests all the heartbreak at the end, adapting her large voice throughout to the work’s conversational style. Jungwirth is a ripely experienced, echt Viennese Ochs, for the most part avoiding excessive boorishness. Kusche is a tetchy old Faninal, Araiza a mellifluous Italian Tenor. The smaller parts are taken by long-serving members of the Munich company. The picture comes up fresh on DVD and the sound is mostly first-rate, as is the video direction.
Ariadne auf Naxos
Gundula Janowitz sop Ariadne Agnes Baltsa mez Composer Edita Gruberová sop Zerbinetta James King ten Bacchus Walter Berry bar Music-Master Barry McDaniel bar Harlequin Kurt Equiluz ten Scaramuccio Manfred Jungwirth bass Truffaldino Gerhard Unger ten Brighella Hilda Groote sop Naiad Axelle Gall contr Dryad Sona Ghazarian sop Echo Erich Kunz spkr Major-Domo Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera / Karl Böhm
Orfeo d’Or C817 112i (122’ • DDD) Recorded live, November 1976. Buy from Amazon
A Karl Böhm Ariadne is not news. There are four predecessor competitors currently still available (a 1969 DG LP set from Munich with much the same cast – Hillebrecht, Thomas, Grist – as a 1965 Salzburg DVD has not, as far as I know, reached CD yet). They range from historic broadcast mono (now Myto, once DG, 1944) to reasonably modern on-DVD stereo (DG, 1978). The first of these, despite the occasion – a Nazi grandee-led celebration of Strauss’s 80th birthday in wartime Vienna – is one of the great performances of any opera, led by Max Lorenz’s unstinting Bacchus, Maria Reining’s stylish Ariadne and Alda Noni’s Zerbinetta.
Böhm’s way of handling the score is already established here. He lets the rather modern-sounding components of Strauss’s around-40 chamber orchestra sound; you can always, for example, hear the harmonium, the piano and the percussionists clearly, whereas Karajan and Levine (and even Masur and Kempe a little) almost try aurally to pretend they’re not there. Even at the climax of the opera, with Bacchus and Ariadne going vocally full tilt, Strauss never sought to make this opera’s sonorities resemble those of a big late-Romantic orchestra. Böhm respects this in 1976 as much as in 1944.
The cast combines the new with the mature. Agnes Baltsa is a pert, ultra-stylish Composer, her passion for her music (and a little for Zerbinetta) evident but well reined in. Janowitz is not in as free and unpressured a vocal state as she was for Kempe (EMI) in 1968 but certainly sounds committed. Gruberová (replacing Böhm’s once-favoured Reri Grist) does not tease her text out in the aria as some (Sylvia Geszty for Kempe), is not always as sexy as some (Geszty again) but she is both genuinely virtuoso and funny – though Orfeo has opted to keep far too much untracked applause at the end of ‘Grossmächtige Prinzessin’. Trusting in his fine male cast, Böhm (in what one may call ‘late style’) allows the Harlequin accompaniments to become very bar-room – apt, and he’s always there to pick them up after showtime. Finally, there’s James King’s Bacchus, in good form and seeming to have gone even further with his personal investigation of how best to vocalise this not always grateful role.
This old newcomer rates highly. There can’t be one ‘best’ Ariadne in such a wide market as today. I’d want the 1944 Böhm, the 1935 Clemens Krauss (but it’s only the opera), the 1968 Kempe (wonderful conducting of the Dresdeners in his first-ever performance of the score), the Sinopoli (DG, 2000 – good all-round cast and interesting ‘modern’ reading from the conductor, like Böhm but a stage further) – and this new release, too, in good-ish, most ‘live’ sound. Mike Ashman
Die Frau ohne Schatten
Julia Varady sop Empress Plácido Domingo ten Emperor Hildegard Behrens sop Dyer's Wife José van Dam bar Barak the Dyer Reinhild Runkel contr Nurse Albert Dohmen bar Spirit-Messenger Sumi Jo sop Voice of the Falcon Robert Gambill ten Apparition of a Young Man Elzbieta Ardam mez Voice from above Eva Lind sop Guardian of the Threshold Gottfried Hornik bar One-eyed Brother Hans Franzen bass One-armed Brother Wilfried Gahmlich ten Hunchback Brother Vienna Boys' Choir; Vienna State Opera Chorus; Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir Georg Solti
Decca 436 243-2DH3 (three discs, nas: 195 minutes: DDD). Buy from Amazon
I shall chance my arm and declare this to be the most excitingly recorded opera of any to date. The range of sound is extraordinary yet it is never gained at the expense of detail. Warmth and range are self-evident; at the same time the most intricate passage can be clearly heard. The Decca producers and engineers who set standards 20 and more years ago with Solti's sets of Salome, Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier here score another triumph. The currently deleted EMI/Sawallisch version (9/88) has nothing like the same immediacy. Such a glorious sound picture is all of a piece with Solti's interpretation. As one might have surmised from the aforementioned sets he brings out all the histrionic power of the score, all its elemental force and passion. As ever this sometimes means living from bar to bar on a consistent high, with little room left for relaxation , but it does give this many-sided score a dramatic tautness-as was the case when he first conducted at Covent Garden in a famous staging back in the 1960s. As he tells us in a note in the booklet, the work has ‘always been one of the greatest loves of my operatic life’ and he conducts it con amore as at the great D major theme in Act 1, or in the heartfelt duet for Barak and his wife in Act 3. He also concentrates, as much as any version on the fantastic/allegorical side of the work: every fish, unborn child and visionary youth comes vividly before us. If you think you might tire of Solti's frontal attack you may prefer the slightly more lyrical, even-tempered readings of Sawallisch and Böhm. The blatancy of the G major/C major rejoicing at the work's close, when done with so much extroversion, becomes a shade trying. On the other hand there are one or two moments when Solti's performance hangs fire – at fig. 69 in Act I for instance, surely taken too stiffly, and in some of the Emperor's music where the conductor goes carefully, perhaps in deference to the relative unfamiliarity of his tenor with this music. In his note Solti makes the point that the musical problems ‘are enormous, the greatest being the problem of balance’. Of course on disc the need to keep the text clear while not holding back the glories of the orchestration can be overcome so that here the sometimes conflicting demands of words and music to which Solti refers are reconciled.
In his achievement, Solti has the inestimable cooperation of the Vienna Philharmonic, as did Böhm, and there can be no doubt that they live the work and play it with greater authority than their Bavarian Radio colleagues (Sawallisch). While the sound for Böhm I (Decca) is still incredible considering its age (1955), the new one inevitably has a broader spectrum. As ever, when one turns to the singers, an ideal would be a composite of the best elements in each cast. The soprano roles in this version are both superbly taken. As the Dyer's Wife, Behrens is far and away superior to Sawallisch's Vinzing and Böhm I's Goltz, rivalling the classic interpretation of Nilsson (Böhm II/DG). It may be that both dramatic sopranos were vocally a shade past their best when they turned to this role, but both show an instinctive understanding of its needs. Behrens tugs at the heart in everyone of her solos, notably in her frustrated outburst in Act 2 culminating in the heartbreak of the line ‘Barak, ich habe es nicht getan’. But she caps this with her deeply eloquent singing in the long solo at the start of Act 3, the very centre of the part. Praise cannot be higher for Varady than to say that she challenges Rysanek's hegemony in the role of the Empress (both of the Böhm sets). Varady's highly charged, vibrating tone invests the part with just the right sense of growing knowledge of the self, and time after time her singing, on a technical level, is rewarding in its sensitivity and accuracy. Rysanek perceives the part in a more inward manner; Varady is the more intense. Both have a better understanding of the part's needs than Studer (Sawallisch). José van Dam sings Barak with the strength of tone and line, the sincerity of purpose one would expect, but-perhaps because he hasn't much experience of it on stage-he doesn't catch at the heart as do Berry (Böhm II) , even more Schoeffler (Böhm I). Many will buy the set for Domingo's Emperor (the wrong reason) and not be disappointed by his stalwart, straightforward, blessedly steady singing. But Kollo (Sawallisch), once you make allowance for the beat in his tone , sings the role with more idiomatic diction and more involvement; so does the admirable King (Böhm II). Hopf’s voice for Böhm I is best fitted for the part, but he doesn't show much imagination. The Nurse, being a gift of a part, is well sung by all the mezzos. Runkel, a singer new to me, certainly conveys malign force, but Schwarz (Sawallisch) and Höngen (Biihm II) are more individual and therefore more interesting.
The minor roles are all carefully cast by Decca. Dohmen, whose Don Giovanni I so much admired recently, confirms his talent as the Spirit Messenger and Sumi Jo as the Falcon's Voice is luxury casting indeed. This new version must be first choice now, not only as a splendid achievement all round but because the early Böhm is somewhat foreshortened, but those for whom economy is a necessity need hardly consider that they are being fobbed off with second best if they buy the older Decca set: it still casts its pioneering spell. Alan Blyth
Intermezzo (sung in English)
Elisabeth Söderström sop Christine Marco Bakker bar Robert Storch Elizabeth Gale sop Anna Richard Allfrey spkr Franzl Alexander Oliver ten Baron Lummer Thomas Lawlor bass-bar Notary Anthony Rolfe Johnson ten Stroh Glyndebourne Festival Opera; London Philharmonic Orchestra / Sir John Pritchard
Chandos CHAN3174 (150’ • AAD • S/T) Recorded live 1974. Buy from Amazon
A curio or a godsend? The answer comes down to two factors: How one values this set’s star, Elisabeth Söderström, and if one’s German can keep up with Strauss’s hyper-verbal opera. Intermezzo has long been known as the Strauss opera least likely to succeed with non-German-speaking audiences. In the age-old question of whether words or music should dominate, words definitely have the edge here as the composer, acting as his own librettist, dramatised an already stormy marriage driven to the brink by a love note accidentally sent to the wrong conductor – and intercepted by his wife. The opera’s candour was a source of embarrassment and sensation. Only later was Intermezzo appreciated as a dramaturgical extension of the Ariadne auf Naxos prologue, employing a full range of text declamation, even spoken word, but largely avoiding fully fledged singing almost until the final duet. Still, Intermezzo’s comic velocity is such that one can assiduously follow the libretto with the classic Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI) conducted Lucia Popp/Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recording and only catch 50 per cent of what’s there. The 2008 arrival of Glyndebourne’s handsome John Cox production on DVD, with the central role of Christine sung in Andrew Porter’s English translation by Felicity Lott, addressed all the needs of English-speaking audiences. Besides singing the vocal lines with a fine-etched accuracy, Lott smartly accounted for the spaces Strauss left for non-singing stage action, which can be as subtle as significant glances while reading a newspaper – as opposed to the more obvious to-ing and fro-ing of Der Rosenkavalier. Theatrical tone is so delicate here: the bickering of the opening scene can seem a bit like Edward Albee’s George and Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. With stage director Cox, it’s played more like aggressive banter, accounting for why, despite the volatility, they’re a strong unit. As much as Christine rails about the trappings of fame, their public-figure status makes their home a crucial refuge, giving the marital crisis extra gravity. This newly released 1974 live recording, also from Glyndebourne, might seem like less of the same. The LPO threatens to fall apart in some of the preludes and the casting isn’t consistently good. Though Intermezzo acts like a chamber opera, the music requires a grand operatic manner in the final scene, and Marco Bakker (Robert Storch) wasn’t up to the task that night. The tricky scene between Christine and her young son Franzl – she sings and he talks – barely comes off at all. But as a longtime Söderström admirer, I wouldn’t be without this set. And perhaps one need not have such a preexisting bias to feel the same. The opera belongs to Christine – it’s almost a monodrama with subsidiary characters – so that any given star’s strengths loom larger than usual. And as fine as she is, Lott isn’t the last word on the role, which fails to tap the best parts of her voice (her legato, for one). Söderström offers a heartier range of vocal colour and seems to inhabit the role in ways that make the comic aspects driven more by the character than by the situation. Not until hearing this recording did I realise that this opera is so much more than a comedy. At the end of Act 1 when Christine is convinced the marriage is over, Pritchard’s handling of the orchestra shows how deftly the music conveys that gut-wrenching feeling when the most basic fabric of one’s life is ripped to pieces. David Patrick Stearns
Die Aegyptische Helena
Gwyneth Jones sop Helena Matti Kastu ten Menelaus Dinah Bryant sop Hermione, First Elf Barbara Hendricks sop Aithra Willard White bass Altar Curtis Rayam ten Da-Ud Betty Lane sop First Servant Glenda Kirkland mez Second Servant Patti Dell sop Second Elf Maria Cimarelll contr Third Elf Katherine Grimshaw contr Fourth Elf Birgit Finnilä contr The Omniscient Seashell Kenneth Jewell Chorale, Detroit Symphony Orchestra / Antal Dorati
DG 479 2274 (33 discs) - 'Richard Strauss Complete Operas'. Or download individually from Amazon
The Egyptian Helen is by no means the last of Richard Strauss's operas to reach the commercial record catalogues, but it is the last of the six in which he collaborated with the Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal (it was succeeded only by Arabella, during whose composition the poet died). Strauss had been to see Offenbach's La belle Hélène and, captivated by the glamorous young Maria Jeritza, asked for an operetta that would exploit Jeritza's musical and physical charms. This opera was the result, much grander and more serious than its authors originally intended, and without spoken dialogue. After its premiere in 1928 it was produced quite widely round Europe, and at the New York Metropolitan (with a mezzo-soprano Da-Ud, as Strauss originally intended, though Hofmannsthal insisted on a tenor). In 1933 Strauss made extensive revisions to the second of the two acts, and since the war this revised version has been accepted in the few productions there have been (I saw one in Munich, another in Vienna with Gwyneth Jones as Helen), though the Dresden original, preferred by Dorati, is musically superior, sometimes in points of dramatic detail too. The Egyptian Helen has never been staged in Britain, and its very plot may be unfamiliar to some readers.
Later classical Greek mythology bad it that the belle Hélène whom Paris abducted, thus causing the Trojan War, was not really Spartan King Menelaus's wife, but an illusory substitute created by the gods. The real Helen was kept in Africa, under divine protection, until after the end of the war when she was happily re-united with her husband and taken home to Sparta where they were subsequently said to be ruling and living in perfect matrimonial felicity. Hofmannsthal, working in post-Freudian Austria, had to square the old and new legends: there was only one Helen, but she had to persuade Menelaus to forgive and take her back as a truly loving wife, which she did by drastic but effective measures, and not without some superhuman aid. The opera is, chiefly, worth getting to know for a wealth of glorious vocal music (including the largest and finest of all Strauss's principal tenor roles, designed for Richard Tauber), and a quantity of the granite-like, toughly dissonant harmony and scoring which distinguish his Elektra and turn up in his later Greek operas, because they must have typified old Hellas for him.
When I first learned of this recording's imminence, my informant wondered whether Dorati was the right choice of conductor: I temporized, remembering Dorati's Dresden period and also a Rosenkavalier in which he got right many passages in which more famous Strauss conductors flounder. The new records justify his engagement to the hilt. He gives the score all its dynamic grandeur and its lyricism. But particularly the attack and piquant rhythmical precision of the episodes for elves in the First Act and African nomads in the Second are heard to good effect. These passages, which can appear as theatrical digressions, now really justify their presence. The Detroit orchestral soloists, particularly woodwind, horn and violin , all acquit themselves eloquently, and the choruses are strongly projected-though words are not always clearly pronounced, and that goes for most of the cast, even Gwyneth Jones who, though long fluent in German, often swallows consonants when she sings. Yet after hearing the set at least twice, some sides more often, I will suggest that she should sing Strauss's ‘Zueignung’ in the composer's orchestral version , which ends ‘You wonderful Helen, Thank you’. Monserrat Caballé has recorded it in this way.
Gwyneth Jones is in glorious voice, necessary since we must believe her to be the most beautiful of all women, and on record we cannot see her (on stage Miss Jones visually fulfils all the demands of the part); perhaps her vibrato is rather broad at times, her pitch not always exact, but mostly her singing gives great pleasure, expressively always so. Helen's female sparring-partner, Aithra, is delightfully taken by Barbara Hendricks, cool and clear, yet vibrant with a splendid top register up to D and elegant facility in florid music (she was the expert Susanna in Figaro at the Aix-en-Provence Festival this summer). Birgit Finnilä has all the cavernous, solemn vocal equipment for the visionary voice of the Seashell. The many small female parts are ably discharged (some careless pronunciation excepted). Tauber would have found Menelaus's part strenuous, and it usually falls to a Tristan or Siegmund. Matti Kastu survives the heights and depths, and the awkward vocal intervals in between, dauntlessly: I came to appreciate his timbre, which at first sounded dry, with narrow German vowels, because he sings the role with such ringing conviction. In the Second Act Willard White's blend of authoritarian attack and amorous tenderness well suits Altair's part, especially since he has the easy top of a true basso cantante. Curtis Rayam sounds mellifluous in the smaller role of his young son Da-Ud.
The recorded sound is at its most likeable in the finale of Act One, roomy and vibrant, then rather cramped at the beginning of the Second Act. In some big ensembles (e.g. the noisy and orchestrally active duet of Helen and Menelaus) the sound becomes congested. Voices need to be brought forward for best vocal appreciation. I had to advance bass frequencies to hear the music's bass line at all clearly in less than loud music. In fact i t took a little time to adjust this recording to my versatile audio system, but eventually the results remained acceptable, the dynamic range quite wide. William Mann (December 1979)
Julia Varady sop Arabella Helen Donath sop Zdenka Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Mandryka Walter Berry bass Waldner Helga Schmidt mez Adelaide Elfriede Höbarth sop Fiakermilli Adolf Dallapozza ten Matteo Hermann Winkler ten Elemer Klaus-Jürgen Küper bar Dominik Hermann Becht bar Lamoral Doris Soffel mez Fortune Teller Arno Lemberg spkr Welko Bavarian State Opera Chorus; Bavarian State Orchestra / Wolfgang Sawallisch
Orfeo C169 882H (142‘ · DDD · T/t). Buy from Amazon
Complete except for a brief cut in Matteo’s part in Act 3, Sawallisch’s 1981 Orfeo recording of Arabella has been easily fitted on to two CDs. Sawallisch is an experienced conductor of Strauss’s operas and is at his best in this one, his tempi exactly right, his appreciation of its flavour (sometimes sentimental, at others gently ironic and detached) unequalled. Helen Donath’s delightful Zdenka is a perfect foil for Varady’s Arabella. Varady’s singing of the title-role is characterful and intelligent. One should be left with ambivalent feelings about this heroine; is she lovable or a chilling opportunist? Or both? And while Fischer-Dieskau’s singing of Mandryka has not the total security of his earlier DG recording of the role with Keilberth, he remains among the best Mandrykas heard since the war.
Die schweigsame Frau
Theo Adam bass Sir Morosus Annelies Burmeister mez His housekeeper Wolfgang Schone bar Barber Eberhard Buchner bass Henry Morosus Jeanette Scovotti sop Aminta Carola Nossek sop Isotta Trudeliese Schmidt mez Carlotta Klaus Hirte ten Morbio Werner Haseleu bass Vanuzzi Helmut Berger-Tuna bass Farfallo Johannes Kemter spkr Parrot Dresden State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Marek Janowski with Klaus-Dieter Stephan (harps, org)
EMI 559873-2 (three discs). Buy from Amazon
Posterity has begun to change its mind about this unique collaboration between Richard Strauss and the distinguished Austrian author Stefan Zweig, who gave the composer his heart's desire, a true comic opera (such as his chief librettist, Hofmannsthal, recently deceased, was too serious to create, witness Der Rosenkavalier and Ariadne auf Naxos, both more earnest than amusing). Strauss revelled in the opportunity to write extended sections of really quick music, brilliant and elaborate ensembles, coruscating fireworks for orchestra too, thoroughly rejuvenating in effect for a composer aged 70; and he could expand in lyrical, warmly affectionate passages of contemplation in serenity, the natural self-expression of an elderly master. He seems not to have noticed that Zweig's libretto, derived from Ben Jonson's Epicoene, contained more than enough of Donizetti's Don Pasquale (but perhaps he did not know it, even though he included it in his later document on operatic repertory addressed to Karl Böhm).
The first production of Die schweigsame Frau, at Dresden in 1935, was doomed before the event by the German government's anti-semitic policy: Zweig was a Jew. It was withdrawn after two performances, and opera companies abroad did not think, even as a challenge to Hitler, to take it up. Even after 1945, when it began cautiously to emerge from under the dustsheets, received opinion declared that the play was silly, the music empty. I remember a Salzburg Festival broadcast, with Hilde Gueden and Hans Hotter, most enjoyable but heavily cut. A Covent Garden production in 1961 lacked the careful preparation and watchful taste to convert the sceptics, though David Ward was an ideal Morosus and Kempe the perfect conductor. The Silent Woman, as the title translates into English, has, more recently, won new admirers through productions elsewhere. These records commemorate one in Dresden, and are issued to coincide with a revival of Glyndebourne's jovial production by John Cox.
Strauss made exigent demands on an opera-house's casting director. The heroine Aminta is more kindly and charming than Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos; Miss Scovotti has the tenderness as well as the top notes (a little like a steam-whistle, almost inevitably, but neat and not actually displeasing). The hero Sir Morosus is a basso profundo of dynamic character, a different sort of Ochs, from Der Rosenkavalier, a more starry Daland, from Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, half-way to Verdi's King Philip in Don Carlo, a sophisticated cousin to Dulcamara in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. Theo Adam's voice is in sufficiently 'bass' for the role, more akin to Sachs in Wagner's Die Meistersinger than the Barber in Cornelius's The Barber of Bagdad, though his tones are incisive, his low Cs acceptable, his characterization vivid and sympathetic. His voice is not perfectly steady above the stave, nor is that of the high baritone Barber, otherwise an admirable artist (though a role involving so many slurred two-note melismas requires a singer who never aspirates such chains of notes). Henry, nephew of Morosus and husband or the title-role, is a fluent light high tenor, a Fach well suited to Eberhard Buchner, though he might be wished more round and incisive in tone. The other voices are chiefy required to lend spirit and precision to the many ensembles, and they do so. I much admire Burmeister (always a dependable artist) as Widow ZimmerIein, and the nicely grotesque comic disguises of Isotta and Carlotta, both deserving many a laugh. The glorious Dresden orchestra lives up to its reputation with punctilious response to Janowski's sparkling interpretation, fully attentive to the wealth of detail (often musically allusive) in the score.
The performance was recorded in a highly reverberant place, the Lukaskirche in Dresden, yet it is close-miked: often the orchestral sound is unnecessary muffled-but then that avoids an over-lavish spread of sound in quick orchestral music. This is the comic opera which demands everything from voices and instruments in top gear. Janowski controls them as he does the numerous grand ensembles. The high quality of the orchestral playing fully justifies small collapses from grace: at least we can now get to know Die schweigsame Frau in close detail, uncut and persuasively cast. William Mann (June 1979)
Bernd Weikl bar Commandant Sabine Hass sop Maria Jaakko Ryhiinen bass Sergeant Jan Vacik ten Rineman Jan-Hendrik Rootering bass Corporal Alfred Kuhn bass Musketeer Gerhard Auer bar Bugler Eduardo Villa ten A Piedmontese Florian Cerny bar Officer Thomas Woodman bar Front-Line Officer Kurt Moll bass Holsteiner Robert Schunk ten Burgomaster Karl Helm bass Prelate Cornelia Wulkopf mez Woman of the People Bavarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra / Wolfgang Sawallisch
EMI CDC5 56850-2 (77 minutes: DDD). Notes, text and translation included. Recorded from a broadcast performance at the Staatsoper, Munich on July 22, 1988. Buy from Amazon
In 1988, the Munich Festival presented everyone of the operas of its native son, Richard Strauss. The late William Mann, whose volume on the genre (Richard Strauss: A critical study of the operas; Cassell: 1964) is a classic, was in attendance. In his review for Opera he commented that the concert performance of Friedenstag was to be issued on CD the following year. In fact it has taken 11 years for the recording to be released, at least in this country. The work has always been frowned on, even in the most exalted circles of Strauss aficionados, but every time I hear it - most recently in another live performance, that with the cast of the 1938 premiere - I am moved by the passion and sincerity of the relationship between the seemingly strict, militaristic Commandant and his wife Maria, starved of love and affection as her husband devotes all his energies to prosecution of his part in the Thirty Years War. Admittedly much of the first part of the 80-minute, one-act work is less than inspired but once the tortured, uptight Commandant takes centre-stage, the composer's inspiration takes off.
This splendidly committed performance offers excellent advocacy for the opera, Sawallisch, then in charge of the Bavarian State Opera, was and is the most authoritative among today's Strauss conductors. His reading here and the playing of his orchestra are convincing and technically assured, The role of the Commandant was written for Hans Hotter and he sings it superbly on the Koch Schwann-Vienna State Opera set, but Weikl is almost in his noble predecessor's class. At the peak of his career in 1988 he pours out strong, untiring tone and conveys all the man's inner agony evinced in his relationship with his troops and with his wife. As Maria, Sabine Hass, who recently died while still in her forties , could have no better memorial than this assumption, her impassioned, rich-toned voice soaring to the heights as she seeks to rekindle her husband's interest in her: Mann commented that she sang the part 'more movingly than anything I have heard her do'. The role seems to draw the best from its interpreters Viorica Ursuleac gives a blinding performance on the alternative set. That has, on the whole, the better support, but of course the new version is far better recorded and will satisfy anyone wanting to add the piece - a snip on one CD – to their collection. Alan Blyth (September 1999)
Die Liebe der Danae
Manuela Uhl sop Danae Franz Grundheber bar Jupiter Jürgen Schöpflin ten Mercury Paul McNamara ten Pollux Cornelia Zach sop Xanthe Europa Robert Chafin ten Midas Susanne Bernhard sop Semele Gro Bente KjeUevold mez Alkmene Katharina Peetz contr Leda Kiel Opera Chorus; Kiel Philharmonic Orchestra / Ulrich Windfuhr
CPO CP0999 967-2 (165 minutes: DDD) Recorded live at the Konzertsaal, Kieler Schloss on AprIl 2 and 11, 2001. Buy from Amazon
Michael Oliver wrote a convincing defence of Strauss's last-but-one opera some three years ago, when reviewing the Botstein Telarc set, just about the time this new performance was being recorded, but he failed to take account of either of its predecessors. I cannot find as much to praise in the work, sharing the view of David Murray in Opera Grove (Macmillan: 1991) that 'it is our last glimpse of the old, unconfined Strauss, prodigal with importunate feeling'. William Mann, in still the best exegesis of the work (The Operas of Richard Strauss; Cassell: 1964), was equally equivocal in his view of this curate's egg of a score. The problem lies partly with Joseph Gregor's flat, wordy libretto, partly with the fact that large stretches of the work are concerned with minor characters of peripheral consequence for whom Strauss tries, but mainly fails, to write witty music. By contrast, he writes some typically fine and lyrical music for his three principals and, in the case of Danae and Midas, his most gratifying love music for soprano and tenor after the Ariadne/Bacchus duet at the close of his early masterpiece. With a work that is distinctly second-best so much depends on the merits or otherwise of its performance. Here we have, as in the three previous sets, a live rendering, one based on performances of the work in Kiel. It boasts in young Ulrich Windfuhr a willing advocate for the piece. His reading is well-paced, refulgent in sound (though the orchestra is rather backwardly recorded) yet light on its feet, in that respect matching Botstein's account. The set discloses a tenor, the American Robert Chafin, with just about all that the demanding part of Midas calls for – a lyrically ardent voice and manner that never becomes too insistent. The Irish tenor Paul McNamara also does well in the lesser role of Pollux. If anything, the veteran Franz Grundheber, 64 at the time, offers an even more rewarding performance, as Jupiter, than his tenor colleagues, just about matching the experienced Paul Schoeffler, who sings on the old Krauss recording of the premiere. The stature of Grundheber's singing and his eloquent understanding of Jupiter's dilemma are just what the role, autobiographically written by Strauss, requires. The smaller roles are mostly well taken. Unfortunately, there is a big disappointment in the title part. Manuela Uhl's thin, edgy tone and unstable singing is inimical in a part, once the preserve of the great Leonie Rysanek, as the latter proved in the first and only London stage performances given by the Bavarian State Opera in 1953. OrIa Boylan, on the Garsington recording, has the resonant, beautiful voice the part needs, but doesn't suggest the allure or personality Rysanek, and Anneliese Kupper to a lesser extent on the Krauss set, provided. None of the present offerings is altogether ideal.
Elisabeth Schwarzkopf sop The Countess Eberhard Waechter bar The Count Nicolai Gedda ten Flamand Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Olivier Hans Hotter bass-bar La Roche Christa Ludwig mez Clairon Rudolf Christ ten Monsieur Taupe Anna Moffo sop Italian Soprano Dermot Troy ten Italian Tenor Karl Schmitt-Walter bar Major-Domo Philharmonia Orchestra / Wolfgang Sawallisch
EMI Great Recordings of the Century mono 567394-2 (135‘ · ADD · T/t). Recorded 1957. Buy from Amazon
Not only is Capriccio a source of constant and none-too-demanding delight but its performance and recording, especially in this CD reincarnation, are well-nigh faultless. Walter Legge assembled for the recording in 1957 what was almost his house cast, each singer virtually ideal for his or her part. Some might say that no role she recorded suited Schwarzkopf’s particular talents more snugly than Countess Madeleine. Her ability to mould words and music into one can be heard here to absolute advantage. The charming, flirtatious, sophisticated, slightly artificial character, with the surface attraction hiding deeper feelings revealed in the closing scene (quite beautifully sung), suits her to the life. She, like her colleagues, is superbly adept at the quick repartee so important an element in this work.
As her brother, the light-hearted, libidinous Count, the young Eberhard Waechter is in his element. So are the equally young Nicolai Gedda as the composer Flamand, the Sonnet so gently yet ardently delivered, and Fischer-Dieskau as the more fiery poet Olivier. Christa Ludwig is nicely intimate, conversational and cynical as the actress Clairon, handling her affairs, waning with Olivier, waxing with the Count, expertly. Above all towers the dominating presence of Hotter as the theatre director La Roche, impassioned in his defence of the theatre’s conventions, dismissive of new and untried methods, yet himself not above a trivial flirtation – and how delicately Hotter manages his remarks about his latest protegée as she dances for the assembled company.
Even with so many distinguished singers gathered together, it’s the closeness of the ensemble, the sense of a real as distinct from a manufactured performance that’s so strongly conveyed. And Legge did not neglect the smaller roles: Rudolf Christ makes an endearingly eccentric Monsieur Taupe, the veteran Schmitt-Walter a concerned Major-domo. Anna Moffo and Dermot Troy sing the music of the Italian soprano and tenor with almost too much sensitivity.
Crowning the performance is the musical direction of Wolfgang Sawallisch, always keeping the score on the move, yet fully aware of its sensuous and its witty qualities: Krauss’s amusing libretto has much to do with the work’s fascination. Both the extended Prelude and the interludes are gloriously played by the vintage Philharmonia, who are throughout alert to the old wizard’s deft scoring, as refined here as in any of his earlier operas. The recording might possibly have given a little more prominence to the instruments; in every other respect, although it’s in mono, it hardly shows its age.
Gundula Janowitz sop Countess Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau bar Count Peter Schreier ten Flamand Hermann Prey bar Olivier Karl Ridderbusch bass La Roche Tatlana Troyanos mez Clairon David Thaw ten Taupe Arleen Auger sop, Anton de Ridder ten Italian Singers Karl Christian Kohn bass Major-domo Albert Gassner, Josef Weber, Georg Baumgartner, Paul Hansen tens Theodor Nicolai, Karl Krelle, Peter Schranner, Heinrich Weber bars Servants Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / Karl Böhm
DG 4453472 (two discs). Buy from Amazon
Capriccio will never be a great international popular favourite. Its minority appeal was to an audience many of whom today may well find the arguments about words and music superficial or childish, the disputants no more than attitudes of mind without credible bodies or human personalities. Nothing actually happens all the way through, however many characters come and go--except in the music which is mature vintage Strauss abounding in invention, and strong musical invention too. If an opera's worth can only be fully experienced in the theatre, then Capriccio is not a good opera. But Strauss called it a Conversation Piece, not a music drama. It could yield most of its quality in a concert performance and does, I think, yield all on stereo records when the listener is minded to imagine the setting and characters to his own specification. The text, by the composer and Clemens Krauss with assistance from Hans Swarowsky, may seem naive but has to be understood while the music is going on. Under these circumstances I have become durably addicted to Capriccio, with Lisa Della Casa, Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Elisabeth Söderström, and now (granted a reservation or so) Gundula Janowitz stealing my heart away as the Countess Madeleine. The composer Flamand, the poet Olivier, and the stage director La Roche have all become real characters for me. The others in the cast can seem shadows though Christa Ludwig can bring Clairon to life – Tatiana Troyanos in the new set twice does so, when she sends Olivier packing, and later in her Canzonetta – and Hugues Cuénod made me believe in Monsieur Taupe; and Fischer-Dieskau has now made me realize that the Count is not such a nonentity after all. Given a really good cast and an authentic conductor Capriccio can give a lot of pleasure.
In 1958 Walter Legge assembled just such a cast-Schwarzkopf, Ludwig, Gedda, Fischer-Dieskau (as Olivier), Hotter; they all took pains and came up with a set that has kept me happy ever since. Little hope, I assumed when the DG box arrived, that it would offer much competition to the previous one. The new DG has, now that I've l istened to it, plenty of cause for congratulation. First the blessing of full, well ventilated stereo sound, so important to an opera about words and music-though not even here can one distinguish all the voices and sentences in the Quarrel Ensemble (Sawallisch's team let one hear as much as Böhm's). And then Böhm's frank enjoyment of the music, especially the orchestral outpouring when Flamand leaves the Countess, and the Moonlight interlude before the closing scene (Sawallisch seems dry and unengaged by comparison). Böhm vividly outlines and colours the changes of mood and atmosphere, for example when the company are discussing what opera Flamand and Olivier shall write, and when the servants enter to tidy up, and when Monsieur Taupe explains his mysterious occupation (he is the prompter); Böhm makes much too of Strauss's musical allusions to his own works and to others because of this his neglect of the first Daphne quotation, barely audible, is surprising. His part in the proceedings clearly was a labour of love and the splendid Bavarian Radio Orchestra respond generously for him. Several fairly harmless wrong notes by the singers were allowed to pass-perhaps because this recording was made in conjunction with a studio broadcast without extra time to correct such tiny slips; on a record designed for multiple repetition one regrets the number of them.
The star of Böhm's cast, for me at least, is Karl Ridderbusch, a youngish La Roche, tirelessly vital, beautifully in tune and vocally a joy to hear all the time. His Monologue is a gift to a basso with personality; Ridderbusch excels himself in variety of timbre and inflexion and mood-this La Roche has a sense of humour as well as a good conceit of himself-and his legato singing is a delight. I notice that at one point he takes over one of Olivier's lines, maybe because it lay somewhat low for Hermann Prey who is a lively, euphonious Olivier, scrupulous about words, rather less fiery than Fischer-Dieskau in the earlier set. Peter Schreier, with all his youthful vigour of voice and his charming delivery of the Sonnet, does not for me round out the composer's character as Gedda did, though I would not otherwise fault him.
If you have lived long with Schwarzkopf's Countess then Gundula Janowitz may at first seem cool and heartless, a lovely, disembodied soprano voice, once or twice a touch shrill above the stave, always attentive to the situation but somehow short on allure. She rises to the emotional climax of the closing scene (‘O Madeleine, Madeleine, do you want to burn away between two fires?’) with grand passion: and when her performance is considered as a whole it has its own validity and identity. Madeleine is young and beautiful and susceptible but not necessarily a supreme intellect nor even a paragon of sophistication, as Schwarzkopf impersonated her. Janowitz projects the Countess's breeding and cultural enthusiasm, pursued perhaps without always understanding what she has read or heard. Her charm is her greatest virtue, enhanced here by a certain shyness. In retrospect and on further acquaintance hers is a beautiful performance. Without a Madeleine of at least this calibre Capriccio is likely to collapse. But essentially it's an ensemble opera. A reviewer is required to analyse and particularise but when he comes to appraise a new set of the piece the total effect outweighs the virtues of individual contributions. If you want to know which Capriccio set to acquire: well, the old mono one gets my vote because it's more enjoyable as a whole. The new DG will be preferred by those for whom beautiful stereo sound and savoury, ardent conducting mean a lot, supported by decent singing. William Mann (August 1972)