02 March 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Richard Strauss – GUNTRAM (R. D. Smith, M. Owens, T. Fox, Z. Nelson, W. Wu; Washington Concert Opera, 1 March 2015)

IN REVIEW: Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM performed by Washington Concert Opera on 1 March 2015RICHARD STRAUSS (1864 – 1949): Guntram, Op. 25 [1940 version]—Robert Dean Smith (Guntram), Marjorie Owens (Freihild), Tom Fox (Der alte Herzog), Zachary Nelson (Herzog Robert), Weí Wu (Friedhold), James Flora (Ein alter Mann, Der Herzogs Narr), Amanda Palmeiro (Eine alte Frau), B. Karl Hempel (Erster junger Mann, Vierte Minnesänger), Jose Sacín (Ein Bote, Zweiter junger Mann), Timothy Kjer (Vasall, Dritter Minnesänger), J. Austin Bitner (Erster Minnesänger), Tad Czyzewski (Zweiter Minnesänger); Chorus and Orchestra of Washington Concert Opera; Antony Walker, conductor [Washington Concert Opera, Lisner Auditorium, The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.; Sunday, 1 March 2015]

There is a perverse fascination in both popular culture and broader human history with scrutinizing celebrities and important figures and disclosing to their admirers and detractors the circumstances of their lives before they were ‘stars,’ so to speak. Seemingly, there is an inexplicable delight in knowing that a glamorous doyenne of the cinema grew up milking cows and tending vegetable gardens or that a Senator supported himself during college by waiting tables at a greasy diner. This curiosity also extends to music. Opera singers are often asked in interviews about which professions they might have pursued were their voices not suited for the stage. How might Richard Strauss have answered had he been asked which ‘ordinary’ trade he might have plied had he not been a composer? Unlike Berlioz, who wrote in his ostentatious memoirs that his musical destiny was so unmistakably manifested that his mother sensed it even whilst he remained in her womb, Strauss was a pragmatist inclined to barbed self-deprecation. It is unlikely that he actually believed himself to be a first-rate second-rate composer, but he acknowledged his weaknesses by composing with continual focus on his strengths. Before Richard Strauss the Munich-born son of a horn player invented Richard Strauss the composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Vier letzte Lieder, who was he and what did he envision for himself? Composed during 1892 and 1893 and premièred in Weimar in 1894, Strauss’s first opera, Guntram, offers intriguing answers to these queries. Guntram is the product of an earnest young Wagnerian-in-training, but the opera is more than an apprentice work. In it, among the echoes of Lohengrin and Tannhäuser, are the first whispers of the original voice that would eventually speak new things into the ears of opera and those who love the genre via scores like Elektra, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Die Frau ohne Schatten. Why, then, is Guntram almost never performed? The answer most likely to be offered is that the opera does not merit the attention and affection lavished on its later counterparts in the Strauss canon, and this is not without basis. Equally justifiable and perhaps more truthful is the explanation that the difficulty of the music makes Guntram a hard sell even to those singers with the vocal capital needed to take on the score. Why learn a difficult rôle that in the course of a two-decade-or-longer career one might be called upon to sing only a handful of times? To the delight of devoted Straussians, among whom this writer is counted, Washington Concert Opera again scored a notable victory by assembling under the leadership of Artistic Director Antony Walker a cast of singers not only capable of but also devoted to singing Guntram. This performance of Strauss’s first opera may not have unearthed anecdotes of the composer’s boyhood, but it offered abundant details of his musical origins and where he was destined to go as an artist.

Like L'Orfeo, Don Giovanni, Carmen, and Parsifal, Guntram is an opera that simply cannot function effectively without a strong presence in its title rôle. Similar to the challenges of finding an Orfeo with the technique to master ‘Possente spirto,e formidabil nume,’ a Giovanni who can juggle multiple seductions without seeming an over-sexed jackass, a Carmen who allures without alienating, and a Parsifal who is a fool but never foolish is that of finding a Guntram who can proclaim the character’s platitudes without burying his pathos in pomposity. The language of Strauss’s libretto mimics the stilted verbosity of Wagner’s operas that was already outmoded by the time that Der Ring des Nibelungen was completed, but this is a native tongue for American tenor Robert Dean Smith, whose acclaimed successes in Wagner and Strauss repertories render him an uncommonly qualified Guntram. In the event, however, he had no need to rely upon the validity of his credentials: he performed at a very high level and lent credence to the character’s lofty pronouncements. In Act One, Mr. Smith introduced Guntram with a handsomely-voiced 'Hier, ihr Guten, rastet, erholt euch’ and rose to heights of restrained ecstasy in 'Ein glückliches Loos?' and the first of Guntram’s grandiose arias, 'Schweigen der Liebe.' His singing of Guntram’s heartfelt plea to Freihild, 'Edle Fürstin, nicht stosse mich von dir,' was stirring, and the power that he unleashed in the difficult phrases of 'Nun, Streiter der Liebe, bald naht deine Zeit' gave the air of sincerity to the character’s trite oration. The climax of Act Two is Guntram’s song 'Ich schaue ein glanzvoll prunkendes Fest,' and Mr. Smith sang it masterfully, combining the vocal muscle required to scale the heights of the melodic lines with still-youthful tone. Strauss was at his best when composing Act Three of Guntram, and so was Mr. Smith in this performance. The fear and indignation in his voicing of 'Hinweg, hinweg! Drohe mir nicht' were startling, and the tenor’s sculpting of 'Heilige Offenbarung in himmlischem Klang' was expert. In the opera’s sublime final scene, the ardor of Mr. Smith’s singing of 'Ewig einsam, im Anschau'n des Göttlichen' and 'Wenn du einst die Gauen durchschreitest' was complemented by the emotional directness of his enunciations of 'Gönn' mir die Wonne trostreichen Wissens' and 'Freihild, leb' wohl, leb' wohl auf ewig.’ If a practical reason for Guntram’s neglect were to be cited, it might well be the incredibly punishing tessitura of the title rôle, and though Mr. Smith occasionally struggled with the unrelenting assault on his passaggio his intonation was unimpeachable throughout his range, and he provided a great deal of refined, attractive singing and clarion top notes that would have earned him the envy of many a Walther von Stolzing or Bacchus.

IN PERFORMANCE: Marjorie Owens as Freihild (left) and Robert Dean Smith as Guntram (right) in Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]Herrliche Liebe entquoll deinem Munde: Soprano Marjorie Owens as Freihild (left) and tenor Robert Dean Smith as Guntram (right) in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]

Fresh from celebrating her husband Quinn Kelsey’s selection as the recipient of the 2015 Beverly Sills Artist Award, soprano Marjorie Owens sang like a lady with much about which to rejoice. A staple of the Strauss repertory during her tenure at Semperoper Dresden, she is one of the few singers in the world with experience in singing Guntram. Singing Freihild in Washington, she revealed at once why her Strauss heroines have been so admired in Dresden, a city with a near-legendary relationship with the composer’s music. In Washington, Ms. Owens strode onto the stage with the radiant confidence of Boudicca triumphantly arriving on her chariot. From her first note in Act One, the voice filled Lisner Auditorium with flawlessly-pitched, utterly secure tone. Ms. Owens phrased 'Endlich, endlich entflohn dem Schwarm frei aller Fesseln!’ with the masterstrokes of a true artist and launched top notes worthy of great Brünnhildes and Isoldes—or Ariadnes and Kaiserins. Freihild’s scene in Act Two, 'Fass' ich sie bang, sehnsucht' gen Traumes traurige Erfüllung,’ was exhilaratingly sung, the vocal splendor of Ms. Owens’s voicing of ‘Freihild frei, frei durch Guntram!' making the dramatic importance of the phrase unmistakable. She also met the demands of Act Three unhesitatingly, contrasting her finessing of 'Guntram! Guntram, was ist dir?' with the sheer magnitude of her singing of 'Sieh, du Lieber, ich bin bei dir' and 'Heiligste Not in der Besten Herz.’ The sunburst of tone that she unleashed in 'Heil dir, Geliebter, dein Herz hat gesiegt' was extraordinary, but the wonder of Ms. Owens’s performance was that every note that she sang was extraordinary. Even considering that Washington Concert Opera preferred the 1940 revision of Guntram, it was surprising to note that a rôle composed for the eventual Frau Strauss was given so little to do, especially in comparison with Guntram. Perhaps the desire to hear Ms. Owens giving flight to Strauss’s opulent vocal lines caused her part to seem even briefer.

With an impressive Wagnerian résumé including performances as Alberich in Siegfried and Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera, Tom Fox brought to his singing of der Alte Herzog in Guntram ideal weight of tone and a dark, rugged timbre that ably conveyed the Old Duke’s nobility and vulnerability. Mr. Fox has the technical wherewithal and intelligence to rage without shouting, and in this performance he used German vowels as a guide in coloring the voice. In Act One, his vibrant 'Freihild, mein Kind, mein süßes Kind!' spread through the auditorium like lava, and his stern but paternal account of 'Auch dich, meine Tochter, möcht nicht länger ich missen beim rauschenden Feste' was both imposing and poignant. 'Was zögert ihr?' and the affecting 'Gottes Gnade verlieh mir dies Scepter' in Act Two received from Mr. Fox performances of thundering gravitas. Anger and misery define der alte Herzog dramatically, but Mr. Fox made sumptuous vocalism the character’s defining musical quality.

Golden-throated baritone Zachary Nelson sang the duplicitous Herzog Robert with the kind of vehemence clad in vocal velvet that makes an operatic villain such a wondrous beast. Snarling threateningly in Act One, his singing of 'Verdammtes Volk, hab ich euch gefasst?' was thrilling, and his robust voice rocketed through the colossal textures of ensembles. An indefatigable fount of nastiness in Act Two, Mr. Nelson’s Robert was an ideal foil for the self-righteously devout Guntram. Strauss gave the character no redeeming qualities: his death in Act Two could hardly be mourned, but, depriving the audience of the pleasure of hearing a fantastic voice, Mr. Nelson’s absence in Act Three was lamentable.

IN PERFORMANCE: Maestro Antony Walker conducts Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM [Photo by Don Lassell, © by Washington Concert Opera]The Wizard from Oz: Maestro Antony Walker conducting Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]

Part Sarastro and part Gurnemanz, Friedhold ultimately has more to say than he has influence over Guntram’s actions. As sung by bass Weí Wu in this performance, though, the rôle lacked nothing in vocal stature. Mr. Wu sang 'Schwer ist das Leben, gottgefällig unsrer Werk!' in Act One with solemnly inky tone, and the momentous 'Gegrüsst, Guntram, grosser Sünder' and 'In bangem Stauen sieh mich scheiden' in Act Three benefited from his formidably intense vocalism. Friedhold’s unbending sacrosanctity did not inhibit Mr. Wu’s nuanced interpretation of text, but the significance of the voice made any dramatic handicaps on the part of the libretto inconsequential.

In accordance with what in the recent past has been typical of Washington Concert Opera’s performances, the singers assembled for supporting rôles in Guntram constituted an especially strong team. Tenor James Flora brought a resonant, impeccably-trained voice and fearlessness to his singing as ein Alter Mann and der Herzogs Narr, first touchingly ruing the condition of his homeland and then soaring above the staff in the Fool’s interjections. Mezzo-soprano Amanda Palmeiro sang gloriously as eine Alte Frau, delivering 'Meiner jungen Söhne frühes Grab' in Act One with great feeling and a stream of plush tone. B. Karl Hempel was similarly forceful as both the Erster Junger Mann and the Vierte Minnesänger, and Peruvian baritone Jose Sacín sang powerfully as the Zweiter Junger Mann and ein Bote. Timothy Kjer’s firm voicing of the Vasall and Dritter Minnesänger was complemented by sonorous performances by J. Austin Bitner and Tad Czyznewski as the Erster and Zweiter Minnesänger.

From the first silvery notes of the Ouvertüre, Maestro Walker exhibited an acquaintance with Strauss’s score that belied its neglect. At the time of his creation of Guntram, Strauss was not yet the supreme master of balancing vocal lines with gargantuan orchestrations that he would soon become, and Maestro Walker was attentive to the daunting task of maximizing the impact of the large orchestral soundscape without drowning the singers in a cacophonous flood of tone. WCO’s orchestra and chorus impressed with their well-rehearsed, well-executed performances. Though brief by Wagner’s and Strauss’s later standards (and made slightly more so by utilization of the 1940 revision, in which the composer trimmed the score), Guntram is a demanding piece for both the orchestra and the chorus. Concertmistress Eva Cappelletti Chao’s playing of solo passages was sophisticated, and principal cellist Gita Ladd led her section in graceful executions of very difficult music. Likewise, there were virtually none of the problems that often affect brass and woodwind playing in music of this nature. Perhaps because of the necessity of projecting their voices against the huge orchestra, there was very little interaction among the singers, which minimized the performance’s dramatic effectiveness, but this in no way damaged the music-making. Among soloists, choristers, and instrumentalists, Maestro Walker engendered unassailably high musical standards, however. In essence, Guntram is more pageant than play, and Washington Concert Opera’s performance was a parade of phenomenal Strauss singing.

IN PERFORMANCE: Washington Concert Opera's performance of Richard Strauss's GUNTRAM starring (from left to right) Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, Robert Dean Smith as Guntram, Maestro Antony Walker, Marjorie Owens as Freihild, Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, and Jose Sacín as Ein Bote (Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]Nie wird Friede in diesem Lande: (from left to right) Baritone Zachary Nelson as Herzog Robert, tenor Robert Dean Smith as Guntram, Maestro Antony Walker, soprano Marjorie Owens as Freihild, baritone Tom Fox as Der alte Herzog, and baritone Jose Sacín as Ein Bote in Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Richard Strauss’s Guntram, 1 March 2015 [Photo by Don Lassell, © Washington Concert Opera]