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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Opera Review: Re-light My Fire

The American Symphony Orchestra presents Feuersnot.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
It's either a virgin...or this as Feuersnot by Richard Strauss gets a rare hearing.
The early operas of Richard Strauss (that is, the two he wrote before the whirlwind success de scandale of Salome) are incorrectly dismissed as juvenalia. Take Feuersnot the one-act comedy that the composer wrote (right after Ein Heldenleben) as a riposte to his home city of Munich and its notably conservative musical establishment. On Sunday afternoon, New Yorkers were able to judge Feuersnot for themselves, as the opera received a much-neeeded airing from Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra.

Although the libretto selected for Strauss' second opera was inspired by a bawdy Belgian fairy tale, Feuersnot (the title translates loosely as "The Need for Fire") is a thinly disguised endorsement of the "music of the future" of Richard Wagner. Although Wagner was taboo in the Strauss household (young Richard's father Franz was the principal horn for the premiere of the complete Ring in 1876) his giant music dramas inspired Strauss' development as a composer. The score is packed with Wagner quotes from the joking reference to Wotan's spear (the twelve-note theme sounds when wood-gathering children ask for a particularly big log) to appearances of the "Tristan chord" when the lovers meet in a passionate nocturnal clinch.

In Das Rheingold, the villainous dwarf Alberich says "I will put out your light." Here, the central character is Kunrad, an apprentice magician who has fallen in love with Diemut, the Mayor's daughter. When he is rejected and humiliated, he extinguishes the town's Midsummer bonfire and all other flames. In a long monologue (loaded with leitmotiven and puns on the names of both composers) Kunrad explains that the only thing that will relight the town's fires is the virginity of a young girl--Diemut. After a (gratuitous) Straussian depiction of nocturnal passion (itself a sped-up Tristan parody) the whole ends with the ignition of love.

For this performance, Mr. Botstein assembled a stellar cast. They were led by bass-baritone Alfred Walker as Kunrad, who combined a full, rich sound with a fearless ambition when reaching up into the unusually high baritone notes required for this role. He brought grandeur and mystery to this part, using facial expression to act and show involvement within the constrainsts of the concert setting. The love duet was rich and moving, with carefully sculpted phrases. The final monologue was met head-on, with bold colors in the voice and a wry humor as it is delivered at the character's moment of final triumph.

As Diemut, the aptly named Jacquelyn Wagner soared into some of Strauss' early effort at difficult writing for the soprano voice. He was addicted to giving his singers long, spinning lyric lines and Diemut is a challenging, ambitious part. In her scenes with Kunrad, Ms. Wagner achieved an appealing mix of seductress, coquette and trickster, a kind of prototype for Salome without the blood obsession and fatal ending of the later opera. In several scenes, Ms. Wagner was backed by three girlfriends, (Brenda Patterson, Cynthia Hanna and Micaëla Oeste.) The quartet took a sadistic glee in Kunrad's predicament, and were the last to join in the general rejoicing as the fires were re-lit.

Strauss' opera requires a large ensemble cast, but its short running time (about 85 minutes) means that singers may have only few lines to sketch the members of the surrounding village. The most memorable were  bass Jeffrey Tucker as the town's Mayor, Branch Fields as the innkeeper Jörg Pöschel and tenor Adam Bielamowicz as the upright and moralistic Tulbeck. The Collegiate Chorale and the Manhattan Girls Chorus completed the citizenry, with tight, well-prepared singing that rode smoothly over the busy orchestration.

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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.