Junge Genius: Richard Strauss at the time of the 1894 première of his first opera Guntram, scheduled for performance by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015
Those who attended the 1894 Weimar première of Richard Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, likely surmised that they were hearing the work of a talented disciple of Richard Wagner but might never have suspected that they were witnessing the artistic birth of, as he introduced himself to the American liberators of his beloved Garmisch in 1945, der Komponist von Rosenkavalier—the composer of Der Rosenkavalier. With his first great tone poem, Tod und Verklärung, behind him, the young Strauss’s development as a composer was at a crossroads at the time of his work on Guntram. Having discarded the ethics of Schopenhauer in favor of the philosophical grandiloquence of Nietzsche, the not-yet-thirty-year-old Strauss infused his score for Guntram with thematic ideas that would recur four years later in the monumental tone poem Ein Heldenleben. Despite the near-disastrous reception that the opera received in 1894, the composer’s lingering affection for his freshman effort for the stage was confirmed by his return to Guntram in 1940, when he substantially revised and shortened the score. The lingering suspicion of the score among Twenty-First-Century musicians and audiences was revealed by its inexplicable absence from celebrations of the sesquicentennial of Strauss’s birth in 2014: among countless productions of the familiar operas, the seldom-performed Feuersnot and Intermezzo received performances and recordings, but Guntram continued to hide in the shadows cast by his Straussian siblings, represented by only three concert performances at Dresden’s Semperoper. That omission will be rectified in part on 1 March 2015, when Washington Concert Opera will present a concert performance of Guntram in Lisner Auditorium on the campus of The George Washington University. Fielding a superb cast of singers lauded for combining vocal power with tonal beauty under the experienced baton of the company’s Artistic Director Antony Walker, Washington Concert Opera again offers District-area audiences an opportunity to make the acquaintance of a neglected score and, in this case, gives attentive ears the chance to listen for the seeds that ultimately flowered in Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten.
The Man with the Plan: Sydney-born conductor Antony Walker, Artistic Director of Washington Concert Opera, will lead the company's performance of Richard Strauss's Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Bridget Elliot, © by Pinchgut Opera]
Washington Concert Opera’s performance will utilize Strauss’s 1940 edition of the score, which also served as the basis for the opera’s only other known performance in the United States, a 1983 concert performance in Carnegie Hall by the Opera Orchestra of New York featuring German tenor Reiner Goldberg in the title rôle and Hungarian soprano Ilona Tokody, with whom OONY’s Music Director Eve Queler also made a studio recording of Guntram for Sony/CBS Masterworks. While preferring Strauss’s later, tightened version of the score, Maestro Walker is sensitive to the demands that Guntram makes on conductor, cast, orchestra, and audience. ‘One of the biggest challenges in conducting Guntram is that although it is very Wagnerian in language in many passages, Strauss’s use of the orchestra to accompany the singers is less transparent and heavier than Wagner's writing,’ he says. ‘I will have to be very careful with balancing the orchestra with the singers. Fortunately, in concert the singers are in front of the orchestra, and in Lisner the orchestra is seated behind the proscenium. The combination of both these facts makes the balance between singers and orchestra a little easier!’
Likewise, Maestro Walker is attentive not only to the significance of Guntram in Strauss’s artistic evolution but to the opera’s place in the transition of large-scaled musical forms from the lush tonalism of the Nineteenth Century to the more sinewy idioms of the Twentieth Century. ‘Guntram is an intensely lyrical work, with sweeping vocal lines and beautiful orchestral textures,’ the conductor muses. ‘I hope our audience falls in love Strauss's luscious and luxurious vocal and orchestral lines: a language that is the fullest expression of late 19th Century Romanticism and on the cusp of the modernism of the early 20th Century. As one experiences Guntram,’ he suggests, ‘one can listen for Wagnerian influences, echoes of Strauss's early tone poems Macbeth, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration, as well as [reminding] oneself that this work was [introduced] in 1894, the same year as Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faun, Massenet's Thaïs, Mahler's 2nd Symphony, and a year after Verdi's Falstaff, Humperdinck's Hänsel and Gretel, and Puccini's Manon Lescaut—a fascinating period of transition in Classical Music!’
As is typical of Washington Concert Opera performances, the company’s Guntram will benefit from the participation of a cast of singers ideally-chosen for their parts: Kansas-born tenor Robert Dean Smith in the title rôle, soprano Marjorie Owens—a recent Metropolitan Opera débutante—as Freihild, acclaimed Wagnerian baritone Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, Annapolis native baritone Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, and Chinese bass Wei Wu as Friedhold.
Heil, Minnesinger: Tenor Robert Dean Smith, who will sing the title rôle in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Todd Smith, © by Robert Dean Smith]
One of America’s most celebrated singers of the punishing Wagner and Strauss repertories for tenor, Robert Dean Smith recently garnered praise for his singing of another of opera’s most daunting tenor parts, the title rôle in Verdi’s Otello, in a performance recorded by NAXOS [reviewed here]. In contemplating his preparations to sing Guntram, Mr. Smith is quick to dismiss the notion suggested by tenors of the past that singing Verdi’s Otello is, in vocal terms, a game-changer. ‘In no way does singing Otello alter my "approach" to Guntram—or any other rôle, for that matter,’ he says. ‘It does give me another unique experience that affects ALL of the rôles I sing. Every rôle has specific vocal demands necessitating the application of a correct singing technique so that Verdi will sound like Verdi, Wagner like Wagner, and so on. With each new rôle, with each performance, and also with each rehearsal, I have a mindset for wanting to develop artistically and vocally, improving the ability for expression and communication of the music.’ This mindset is especially crucial in approaching Strauss’s Guntram, he feels, owing to the character’s innate musicality, a quality that surely inspired the composer, perhaps even in a covertly autobiographical sense. ‘Guntram is a singer, like Tannhäuser and, to some extent, Walther in Meistersinger,’ Mr. Smith states. ‘I always find it a pleasant challenge to "sing" as a character on stage. Guntram is one of the good guys, although he does kill, albeit in self-defense. His love of nature, his generosity, and sense of duty are the positive qualities I would like to bring out as much as possible.’
Der kluge Staatsmann: Baritone Tom Fox, Der alte Herzog in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Alex John Beck, © by CAMI]
Like Mr. Smith, Tom Fox chooses to focus primarily not on the musical pedigree of his rôle in Guntram, Der alte Herzog, but on the character’s dramatic specificity. ‘Well, certainly [he] is not patterned after Alberich [a rôle in which Mr. Fox has excelled at the Metropolitan Opera, both in Siegfried and in Götterdämmerung] or Klingsor, [but there] could be a tad of Telramund in there,’ he confides, ‘but those are all Wagner Böse rôles. I feel [that] Strauss was nearing King Marke in Tristan with the alte Herzog. The rôle of Robert seems more along the same type as Alberich, but Strauss was too young when he composed this piece to grasp the psychology of Wagner’s tremendous vocal writing for those rôles. Certainly—for me, at least—Strauss later followed his own path in his vocal writing, acknowledging the influence of Wagner along the way.’ Mr. Fox, whose Vodník in North Carolina Opera’s semi-staged performance of Dvořák’s Rusalka [reviewed here] was a marvel of intelligent, understated characterization, is keenly aware of the inconsistencies in Strauss’s depiction of the alte Herzog and the resulting difficulties in making the character one with whom an audience can sympathize. ‘Actually finding and settling on an interpretation [means] not giving too much weight to the lack of dramaturgy in Strauss’s libretto,’ he remarks. ‘I don’t find any sympathy for Robert in the story, so why is the alte Herzog so embittered at the death of an abusive son-in-law?’ Thinking further about his insightful understanding of the rôle, Mr. Fox adds, ‘That being said, I let Strauss’s composition guide me. His orchestration in the Funeral Aria exhibits tremendous pathos for the old man and his falling-apart empire—hence “become the old man suffering loss and equating everything with his supposed glorious past.” This helps motivate the rage that I feel the part demands at the end. The beginning of the rôle shows the Herzog’s love for his daughter and his acceptance of the Minnesinger Guntram.’
Rôle fit for a bride: Soprano Marjorie Owens, Freihild in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram on 1 March 2015 [Photo by Devon Cass, © by CAMI]
The rôle of Freihild was originated by soprano Pauline de Ahna, who four months after the first performance of Guntram became Frau Strauss. Washington Concert Opera’s performance will feature one of the very few sopranos in the world with experience in Strauss’s first opera. Having sung Freihild in the three Dresden performances in 2014, Marjorie Owens comes to Washington after having rung in 2015 with her Metropolitan Opera début as Verdi’s Aida [in which role she alternated, incidentally, with another Washington Concert Opera alumna, Tamara Wilson]. She was, in fact, the Strauss soprano par excellence at the Semperoper in 2014, her celebration of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth having encompassed, in addition to Freihild in Guntram, performances of the title rôles in Ariadne auf Naxos, which she also sang with great distinction in Fort Worth in 2013, and Daphne. Another great Straussian, Dame Gwyneth Jones, paid homage to Pauline de Ahna in a performance piece entitled Die Frau im Schatten (The Woman in the Shadow), noting that the soprano’s influence over her husband was more heard than seen by the public. Her influence was extraordinary, however, and the quality of Strauss’s music for Freihild is indicative of the power that the soprano exerted over the composer. Mr. Smith likened Strauss’s characterization of Guntram to Wagner’s portrayal of the title character in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and comparisons between Elisabeth in the same opera and Elsa in Lohengrin with Strauss’s Freihild are similarly apt. Elisabeth is another part in which Ms. Owens has excelled in Dresden, solidifying her qualification to sing Freihild with unimpeachable musical and dramatic authority.
It seems that virtually every important German-speaking composer of opera has to his credit at least one score that languishes in obscurity. Even amidst the increased scrutiny of the Baroque revival of recent decades, infrequently-performed Händel operas are numerous. Beyond Salzburg, how many audiences have heard Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus, Ascanio in Alba, or La finta semplice? Having only one player in the game spares Beethoven from neglect in the world’s opera houses, but Wagner’s legacy seldom extends to modern performances of Die Feen, Das Liebesverbot, and Rienzi. Perhaps even more than any of these scores, Richard Strauss’s Guntram has much to offer the Twenty-First-Century listener. Maestro Antony Walker and Washington Concert Opera have repeatedly proved wonderfully adept at conveying the singular passion and pageantry of opera on the concert stage. Their Guntram is poised to establish our nation’s capital anew as one of the world’s foremost operatic capitals.
Sincerest thanks to the artists for their time and frankness in responding to questions for this article. Special thanks, too, to Kendra Rubinfeld of Kendra Rubinfeld PR for her assistance in facilitating the artists’ responses.