Strauss’ Obscene Operatic Gesture Shines at Carnegie

Carnegie Hall, New York; Sunday, December 15, 2013—American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein: Richard Strauss: Feuersnot

Feuersnot is Richard Strauss’ revenge opera, an attempt to give Munich the musical finger after the failure of his first opera, Guntram, several years previously. Taking place on midsummer’s eve, the townsfolk are out celebrating around a bonfire. Kunrad, a sorcerer in training and disciple of the master Reichhart Wagner (get the hint?), who was run out of town previously for his unconventional views, is in love with the mayor’s daughter Diemut. She loves him too, but propriety forbids her from admitting their love to the stuffy citizens. So when he embarrasses her by grabbing a kiss in public, she attempts to exact revenge by hauling him halfway up to her room in a basket and leaving him there to be publicly humiliated.

Kunrad, furious, curses the town by putting out all of the fires. Appearing on Diemut’s balcony, he sings a long monolog in which he castigates the citizens for their conservatism, and for treating him just as badly as they treated his mentor Reichhart. The fires will remain quenched, he claims, until a virgin will give herself to him. Terrified, the townspeople beg Diemut to consummate Kunrad’s passion, which she feels pretty much inclined to do anyway. Strauss’ musical sex scene is unashamedly graphic, and at its pictorial climax the fires shoot up again to general celebration.

Musically the piece is mature Strauss. It was his Op. 50, composed in 1901, after most of the tone poems and just before Salomé and the Symphonia Domestica. The work’s humor is obviously an acquired taste, and the politically incorrect handling of the relationship between Kunrad and Diemut seems to have insured that productions would be few and far between. The opera’s brevity, about 90 minutes, is also an issue, especially when you consider that it calls for 14 solo roles plus an extensive, really extensive, part for children’s choir. Opera-goers generally hate children’s choirs, and for good reason. They always hang around too long and nothing they sing has anything to do with the plot. Feuersnot offers a case in point, even though the Manhattan Girls Chorus sang excellently.

Finally, the title is practically untranslatable. “Not” in German means “need”, in the sense of a lack of something, but it can also mean “emergency”. So “Fire Shortage” might work, but the possessive construction, “Fire’s Need”, also suggests Kunrad’s unquenched passion, and it’s used both ways in the text, which is tough enough to understand given that it employs Bavarian dialect. I do also wish that the stupid German nonsense words sung by the ubiquitous children’s choir had not been translated into stupid English nonsense words (“Inky Dinky Do” and so forth) in the otherwise critically helpful English libretto that was thoughtfully supplied with the program. This was a very generous move; the only prior English translation was made in 1904 in connection with publication of the original piano/vocal score, and it is horrible in ways I can’t even begin to explain, starting with the title: “Beltane Fire”.

The piece works very well in concert, being consistently mellifluous, no longer than a Mahler symphony, and is actually quite fun to listen to. Leon Botstein’s performance was splendid. I have to confess that I had very low expectations, given that my last experience of Botstein and the ASO (Mahler’s Eighth and Ives’ Fourth) was an unmitigated catastrophe. Here he provided exemplary accompaniments, excellently paced and considerate of the singers. The orchestra played very well, and if the sex scene could have been perhaps a bit sexier, well, that’s Botstein. There was really nothing to quibble about.

The cast was also largely superb, especially principals Jacquelyn Wagner as Diemut and Alfred Walker as Kunrad. Wagner has a lovely soprano voice that rides easily over the orchestra without ever turning harsh or shrill. She’s a real Strauss singer. The role of Kunrad is Strauss’ first great essay for baritone (he hated tenors), and Walker has a dark timbre that lent an impressive gravity to the part, yet with an impressive upper extension that managed the high notes comfortably. The minor roles, including Diemut’s three girlfriends, the mayor, and the various townspeople, were almost all cast from strength, and where they weren’t it didn’t matter.

The audience went nuts at the end, and with good reason. It was a terrific concert of a work that does not deserve its neglect. Botstein has pulled off a triumph.

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