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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 © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Monday, February 4, 2008

On the Road to Redemption: Strauss' Friedenstag

Richard Strauss and bass Hans Hotter, who
sang the premiere of Friedenstag.
Of the fifteen operas in Richard Strauss' catalogue, some of them have enjoyed incredible popularity on the stage. His twelfth Friedenstag ("Day of Peace") is not one of these. Despite that, this is a powerful one-act drama, with a muscular score that pushes the orchestral envelope.

Like his other one-act operas, the score of Friedenstag is not always easy listening. Strauss captures the atmosphere of war and fear with dark, menacing tonalities, heavy brass chords, and a thundering chorus. The dramatic contrast between the baritone lead and his wife is offset by the tenor role, a Piedmontese messenger whose vocal lines are a ray of light in this gloomy opera.

At the finale, the whole work moves into C Major and an uplfting choral finish, in a conscious tribute to Beethoven's Fidelio.. Considering the modest price of a one-disc recording and the power of this work's message in times of war, this is an opera that Strauss lovers should consider listening to.

Unfortunately, history has not been kind to Friedenstag. It belongs to that list of operas that Strauss wrote during the early years of the Nazi regime. It also marks the untimely end of his collaboration with Jewish librettist Stefan Zweig. In 1935, Zweig's credit was stripped from the opening night program of Der Schweigsame Frau by Nazi censors. Strauss objected to this act of censorship and wanted to continue working with Zweig on Friedenstag, but the political situation at the time made it impossible. So, starting with Friedenstag, Strauss worked with the writer Josef Gregor. The team wrote three operas together. The other two are Daphne and Die Liebe der Danae. All three are rarely performed.

Friedenstag was conceived as a strong anti-war statement in the midst of a nation preparing for war. Although the opera specifically urges peace in the face of the madness of war, this positive message has been interpreted as yet another version of the Nazis' so-called "pacifist" policies (by which means they annexed Austria and the Sudetenland.) Even though the intentions of Strauss and Gregor were sincere, the "peace" message of the opera was seen as ironic and underhanded, and the opera's reputation suffered. The fact that Hitler attended the 1938 premiere in Munich did not help.

In the last fifteen years, this opera has been recorded three times. The first, on Koch Classics, featuring soprano Alessandra Marc, was unavailable for review. The second, released in 2002 on EMI, features the Bayerische Rundfunks Orchester and the excellent conducting of Wolfgang Sawallisch. The cast features the sometimes piercing soprano of Sabine Hass. Other standouts on this recording are the excellent Kommandants: a military face-off between baritone Bernd Weikl and bass Kurt Moll.

The second set, on Deutsche Grammophon, features the Dresden Staatskapelle under the baton of Giuseppe Sinopoli in one of his last recordings. Even better, this set features Deborah Voigt in the key role of Maria. She is simply incandescent in her two arias, singing Strauss' extended vocal lines with a powerful, dramatic thrust tempered by gorgeous tone. Johan Botha, currently singing Otello at the Met, makes a fine contribution as the Piedmoneses messenger. Both recordings feature excellent, modern orchestral sound, but the edge goes to the Sinopoli.

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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.